“When Washington reporters ask hard questions, Sean Spicer turns to Skype.”
That was the headline of a front-page article in USA Today last week, capping months of criticism of the White House press secretary.
Spicer is being pilloried for the sin of including reporters outside the clubby White House press corps in daily press briefings—and not just reporters, but the inferior beings known as radio commentators and writers from public advocacy groups.
The criticism has raged since the inauguration, and can be summed up by a Feb. 2 Daily Caller headline, “Journalists FREAK.” (Its caps.)
Here’s a shoutout to Spicer and a personal thank you.
As the director of media relations for the Reagan White House, I had the original mandate of expanding the administration’s outreach beyond Washington, D.C. We benefited from advances in technology—just as Spicer has.
Reagan’s Outreach to Middle America
In the early 1980s, the White House mailed out several press releases a day to about 3,000 members of the media around the country and handled the credentialing of reporters coming to White House events.
Mailing press releases about daily announcements resulted in no coverage, but significant expense.
We ditched the mailed press releases and started the electronic White House News service. ITT Dialcom had just started a service to make information (well, text) available to anyone who had an account, a phone, a monitor, and a dial-up system.
For the younger generation, this required putting the phone in two rubber cups, dialing into the system, and opening the folder titled “White House News.” With this new service, anyone could get everything that was available to the press corps.
We also started doing interviews by satellite with local stations around the country. Each time, we did five interviews of five minutes each with local anchors. Local stations had to start with a Cabinet secretary, then Vice President George Bush, and maybe, finally, President Ronald Reagan.
We started briefings for media from every imaginable area: education columnists, editors of women’s magazines, editors of weekly papers, and trade press from various industries. The formula was a two-hour briefing, with four half-hour segments, 20 minutes of remarks, and 10 minutes of questions.
Some of the attendees didn’t ask great questions. The editor of one women’s magazine asked Treasury Secretary Don Regan why they didn’t pay off the national debt by confiscating the profits from oil companies.
He explained that the numbers did seem large, but aside from the illegality of confiscating private companies, all their profits and net worth would only cover a tiny portion of the national debt.
In addition, some of our briefers weren’t well-behaved.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, ambassador to the United Nations, agreed to only one question during a session for editors of college newspapers.
An intrepid soul asked how she could be so complimentary of Reagan and still be a registered Democrat. She icily replied that he obviously had not read any of her writings, because if he had, he would know the answer.
The White House press corps has always considered media from outside Washington or industry press to be second-class citizens. They usually didn’t pay any attention to the media office briefings.
On one occasion, a briefing held for science reporters featured NASA Administrator Jim Beggs, who had just obtained video footage from one of the telescopes in space recording how a new satellite unfolded itself.
The images were breathtaking. The satellite stretched out its solar arms, which caught the sun and became golden.
Word percolated that something cool was happening, and some members of the press corps ran over to room 450 in the Old Executive Office Building and literally pushed the science reporters out of their seats.
But after five minutes, the press corps reporters decided this wasn’t hot news after all, and they left.
Putting the DC Press in Their Place
What Spicer has done at the White House is improve the administration’s outreach effort by several magnitudes, creating a new equality between the full-time credentialed White House reporters and all types of media outside the D.C. bubble.
Spicer recognizes that information from the White House doesn’t belong to the White House press corps. It belongs to the American people.
The quality of questions coming from these new participants may help to restore the public’s confidence in the wider press, though it will also reconfirm the perception that the “mainstream media” focuses on insider quibbles, highly political posturing, and who’s winning or losing.
Contrary to the USA Today headline, which is simply a smearing of Spicer, questions that came from the new participants were substantive and addressed important topics relevant to the country.
One reporter from Providence, Rhode Island, noted that her city had designated itself a sanctuary city and asked if the president really intended to publish a weekly list of such cities and to cut their federal funding.
A reporter from Cleveland observed that the president had campaigned in Cleveland with a pledge to strengthen American cities, and asked for a specific example.
Not surprisingly, reporters raised issues that matter to their areas: A Kentucky reporter asked about removing regulation restricting coal production. One Miami reporter asked about plans to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.
USA Today published a report listing every question asked over Skype, with Spicer’s responses.
The questions and those who asked them differed substantially in tone from the typical White House reporters. These weren’t “gotcha” questions. They were respectfully asked, and they weren’t just a string of sensational charges from the administration’s most vocal critics.
This doesn’t mean Spicer got a pass. Columbia Journalism Review, a decidedly liberal publication, did an analysis of two weeks of Spicer press briefings since the Skype seats were opened, and noted that the mainstream press still retained lots of time to ask questions and that conservative publications, though small in number, posed “thoughtful” questions.
(Columbia Journalism Review grudgingly approved of the new approach, noting that when press corps questions are limited to inside-the-Beltway nitpicking, “Other important topics, like health care, unifying the country, and race relations fall by the wayside.”)
Many, if not most, of the press corps couldn’t hide their disdain for the kinds of questions posed by the outsiders. Their tweets drip with animosity and the word “softball.” If it doesn’t make Spicer angry, it’s a “softball” question.
The White House press briefing room is supposedly constructed over what used to be an indoor swimming pool. Reagan White House press secretary Larry Speakes claimed there was a secret button which, if pressed, would uncover the pool and swallow up the unsuspecting personnel standing on top.
One night, I went in search of the mysterious button. I did not find it, but it looks as if Spicer has found a better solution. Instead of plunging reporters into the pool, he’s blown the top off the building.
Commentary by Merrie Spaeth. Originally published at The Daily Signal.