White House press secretaries have always played favorites when deciding which journalists to call on for questions at the daily press briefings, a subtle power play that has blown up in the face of Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
No matter which party controls the White House, a pecking order usually develops in the press briefings. But the situation has worsened under Ms. Jean-Pierre, according to several reporters who are regularly in the briefing room.
The press secretary consistently calls on reporters in the front two or three rows — the TV networks, the wire service reporters, and the larger-circulation news outlets such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
Most of the other journalists in the 49 seats scrounge for scarce scraps. If the press secretary doesn’t like a reporter or simply decides that a reporter can be ignored without consequences, the reporter might not get a question for six months or more.
One reporter who went four-and-a-half months without getting called on said the briefings have lost value under Ms. Jean-Pierre because they’ve become increasingly scripted.
“She’s made a decent effort of moving around the room, but the moments are very carefully scripted. Spicy questions she gets in advance end up with a fairly dull boilerplate response,” said the reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Today News Africa reporter Simon Ateba tried very hard, very loudly, to change the equation this week by disrupting Ms. Jean-Pierre’s briefing with the smiling cast of TV’s “Ted Lasso” show.
“This is not China. This is not Russia. What you are doing? You’re making a mockery of the First Amendment,” Mr. Ateba hollered at her when she refused to acknowledge him.
The point of Ms. Jean-Pierre’s staged event with the actors was to draw attention to mental health, a point that was completely drowned out by the kerfuffle and by the sheer star power of her guests.
“What has just occurred this last 10, 15 minutes is unacceptable,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said after the mini-furor. “This is the White House Press briefing room. A historic room. A room that should have decorum. A room where folks should respect their colleagues and respect the guests that are here.”
When the dust settled Tuesday, Mr. Ateba still hadn’t managed to get a question answered by Ms. Jean-Pierre. He did get tens of thousands more followers on Twitter, and more support from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night’s show.
Mr. Carlson chided the journalists who had scolded Mr. Ateba to observe “decorum” as he shouted questions at Ms. Jean-Pierre.
“Your job is not to suck up to power, it’s to serve your viewers and readers by getting to the truth,” Mr. Carlson said. “But instead they piled on Simon Ateba. Really the most revealing moment maybe ever in the White House press room.”
While Mr. Ateba didn’t get a question addressed, the White House did make time during the briefing for actor James Lance, who plays journalist Trent Crimm on “Ted Lasso,” to ask a question of actor Jason Sudeikis, who plays the title character in the show.
Mr. Ateba said people who criticize him don’t understand the efforts he has undertaken to meet with Ms. Jean-Pierre apart from the televised briefings.
“I don’t want to go to the briefing room and yell a question,” he told The Washington Times. “I want to exhaust all my avenues before that. I go to her office, I get ignored. I send an email, I get ignored. I do the background calls, I get ignored. Not getting called on discourages you from even going because it’s a waste of time. There are a lot of people in the briefing room who haven’t been called on in months and that’s not OK.”
One of the reporters who chastised Mr. Ateba during his outburst was Brian Karem. He shouted at Mr. Ateba during the briefing, “Mind your manners when you’re in here, and if you have a problem, you bring it up afterward! But you are impinging on everybody in here who are only trying to do their jobs!”
Mr. Karem is a columnist who has appeared on CNN and sometimes hollered parting-shot questions at Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as she would end her briefings.
“There are a lot of us who never get called on but we don’t bitch about it,” Mr. Karem told The Times. “Is this administration different from any other administration? Not really. All administrations are notorious for picking and choosing who they want to answer questions. That is not unusual. It’s not unusual for the press to get up upset about it because we all want our questions asked.”
He said of not getting called on by the press secretary, “I don’t think you have to accept it but there are ways not to accept it that are far more constructive than destructive.”
The White House Press Association told Mr. Ateba before his latest clash with Ms. Jean-Pierre that his membership wasn’t being renewed over concerns with his employment qualifications and past behavior.
“The committee noted repeated instances where your behavior violated the expectations for membership outlined in our bylaws, which have been detailed to you previously,” the association told him in a letter.
• Dave Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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