Even as some White House press briefings go off camera, Press Secretary Sean Spicer welcomes non-Washington media to join in via Skype.
WASHINGTON — They’re a small-town newspaper editor in Kentucky coal country and a California-based syndicated talk radio host who reaches hundreds of stations; they’re local television news anchors in “sanctuary cities” and a political science professor who blogs from Ashland, Ohio.
Five months after his introduction of “Skype seats” in the White House briefings, Spicer is pronouncing the experiment to allow reporters across the country to ask their questions through the video phone service an unqualified success. In fact, he said, he’d like to expand the initiative and have four Skype questions at most briefings.
It’s not just that the White House is reaching beyond Washington reporters for questions, Spicer said. It’s bringing those local questions into the Washington debate, especially at a time when stories about Russia investigations and Trump’s social media are dominating the news cycle out of the nation’s capital.
“It’s informative to have a bunch of Beltway reporters realize that the readership that in some cases they’re helping to inform — or viewership or whatever it is — are much more focused on issues that they have shown zero interest in,” Spicer said.
Spicer has taken Skype questions from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets in 13 briefings. A USA TODAY analysis of press briefing transcripts shows:
► The top questions from the Skype seats have been about topics like immigration, tax reform, and infrastructure – incidentally, issues the White House wants to highlight. The top questions from Washington reporters at those same briefings: Trump’s allegations that former President Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower, the president’s use of intelligence and the Russia election controversy. “It’s telling, more than anything else,” Spicer said.
► 72% of Skype questions have come from states Trump won in the 2016 presidential election. Multiple questions have come from battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania — along with Louisiana, North Dakota and Spicer’s native Rhode Island, a fact he’s playfully acknowledged. “Not sure how she snuck in there,” he said while introducing a WPRI-TV reporter on the first day of Skype questions Feb. 1.
► The questions have come from 15 local television stations, 12 radio programs, four local newspapers and a blogger.
Spicer said he’s working to increase the geographical diversity of the questions, but he’s happy with the mix.
“It should bear out that we have picked almost entirely affiliate-type people, and we’ve added some talk radio, which I’m really proud of,” Spicer said.
“We always wanted to allow voices that don’t have the opportunity to come in, and one of those voices is talk radio,” he said. “And it allows them to engage with their audience in an informed way.”
Talk radio is a predominately conservative medium, and they haven’t always let Spicer off easy.
In mid-March, as Spicer was becoming clearly exasperated by questions about the controversy driven by the president’s own tweets, he turned to a talk radio host in Atlanta.
“Thank you, Sean, for taking questions from a talk-radio host right here in Georgia and not in the D.C. swamp,” said Bryan Crabtree, who spoke in front of a backdrop dominated by advertising for his radio show. Then he asked why Trump hadn’t fired the IRS commissioner and whether House Speaker Paul Ryan was “leading President Trump down a very wrong path on healthcare.”
Helen Ferre, the White House director of media affairs, screens the requests and gets a sense of the questions to prepare Spicer for the briefing. There are test runs on Skype to make sure there aren’t any lighting or sound issues.
There have been awkward moments and technical glitches. The first day, Skype reporters weren’t sure what to call the press secretary, referring to him as “Secretary Spicer,” an honorific traditionally reserved for a cabinet secretary, or “Commander Spicer” using his title in the Naval Reserve. White House reporters just call him “Sean.”
And Spicer, too, has called on Skype questioners by the wrong names.
Some talk radio hosts have taken the opportunity to excoriate the “elite media bubble.”
John DePetro, a talk radio host from Spicer’s native Rhode Island, said he gives Spicer “tremendous credit” for the experiment but couldn’t help but to laugh at himself. “They kept my face up on the screen the entire time Sean answered my question. I was thinking that to those in the White House press corps it might have seemed a little bit of Wizard of Oz,” he said.
Elizabeth Crisp, a reporter for the Baton Rouge Advocate, pressed Spicer on the administration’s policies on long-term disaster recovery. She said she didn’t get a satisfactory answer, but thought the experience was worthwhile.
“It was a chance to bring attention to an issue of importance to Louisiana, which is still recovering from Katrina more than a decade after the storm,” she said.
“I think the Skype seat is a great concept and offers a chance for reporters like myself outside of DC to ask the administration about topics that probably would not be addressed otherwise. I still would like to hear about their approach to disaster recovery,” she said.
Spicer’s short tenure as press secretary has been marked by the sort of short, combative exchanges with reporters that have become lampooned on Saturday Night Live and made him a household name. But he’s also been responsible for more structural changes to a staple of the Washington news cycle — the daily question-and-answer session with reporters from the White House.
Even as he’s given local reporters access to a national television venue via a video feed, he’s closed off many briefings to video cameras – a move condemned by Washington-based television reporters.
Appearing on a radio show hosted by conservative Laura Ingraham this month, Spicer said he was trying to prevent showboating by correspondents who “want to become YouTube stars and ask some snarky question that’s been asked eight times.”
Spicer sees no contradiction between promoting Skype questions while discouraging would-be YouTube stars. In fact, he said, he sees no reason why Skype seats couldn’t also be included in the increasingly frequent off-camera briefings. “We could,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about it, but we could potentially do some stuff like that.”
Spicer’s mission to encourage friendly questions is not unprecedented. White House press secretaries long ago figured out how to deflect tough questions by calling on reporters in the room that they knew would likely change the subject — often members of the foreign press, who are less interested in domestic political controversies.
Franklin Roosevelt used to invite reporters in for Oval Office chats, hoping middle-class correspondents would be more sympathetic to his New Deal policies than the wealthy owners of their newspapers. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were skilled at using television to their advantage, bypassing print reporters. Bill Clinton appeared on late night television, and Barack Obama gave interviews to YouTube personalities who asked about the proper way for dogs to wear pants.
But press secretaries have traditionally catered almost exclusively to the Washington-based reporters who cover the White House full time.
Bringing in Skype reporters may be an attempt to “limit the traditional White House press corps from dominating the discussion,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a Fordham University professor who studies presidential communication strategies.
“He can’t get around the White House press corps unless they shut down the briefings altogether, and they’ve already been clamping down,” he said.
“It’s exploiting a brand-new technology — or at least, one not used by the previous administration,” he said. “On that level, it’s a lot like Trump’s use of Twitter.”
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