Fox News wins in White House briefing room musical chairs

Fox News moves up to the front row in the White House briefing room, and the Associated Press gets Helen Thomas’s old seat.

Alex Brandon/AP
The front row center Helen Thomas seat is seen in the White House briefing room in Washington June 7.

Drumroll please.... The winner of the great Helen Thomas briefing room seat sweepstakes is Fox News. And the Associated Press.

The AP will occupy the seat of the legendary, now-retired White House correspondent – front row, center – in the White House’s Brady briefing room, and Fox News will get the AP’s old seat – second from the left, front row. The real plum is being in the front row, and that’s what all the fuss was about.

The issue came to the fore in June, when Ms. Thomas was caught on video making nasty comments about Israel and Jews, and she summarily retired. Thomas, who turns 90 on Wednesday, had covered the White House since the Eisenhower administration, most of the time for UPI but most recently as a columnist for Hearst.

Three news organizations vied for the promotion to the front row: Fox, Bloomberg, and NPR. The board of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), the sole arbiter of this question, decided that no news organization would move up more than one row, and so that eliminated NPR, which had been in the third row. (NPR’s consolation prize is a promotion to the second row, center seat.)

So it boiled down to Fox versus Bloomberg. The decision was a close call, says Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner and a WHCA board member. Fox won, she says, because it “gets a lot more of [its] stories from the briefing, whereas Bloomberg’s good journalism doesn’t really come out of the briefing; it comes from their own reporting.”

In its announcement to members, including this reporter, the WHCA board said it “ultimately was persuaded by Fox’s length of service and commitment to the White House television pool.”

Participation in the “pool,” a consortium of news outlets that take turns following the president, is expensive when travel is involved, especially for television, which involves more than just a reporter.

The kerfuffle around this seemingly minor adjustment to the briefing-room seating chart became a cause célèbre for the liberal activist groups MoveOn and CREDO Action, which agitated on behalf of NPR and against Fox. The groups collected nearly half a million signatures and shipped them to the WHCA board in boxes. Liberal activists hold particular animus toward Fox, which they see as not a news organization but “the right-wing noise machine’s key propaganda outlet,” to quote CREDO.

The Obama administration, which holds no love for Fox’s commentators, has no problem with its White House reporters.

As for how the White House viewed the whole circus around the vacant seat, Ms. Mason says, “I think they just observed from a bemused distance.”

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