White House correspondents erupted in protest Monday after an Associated Press reporter signaled press secretary Jen Psaki to pull the plug on the daily briefing before others had a chance to ask a question.
“Thanks, Jen,” the AP’s Josh Boak told Psaki 39 minutes into the q-and-a period, indicating that time was up even as another reporter shouted a question about whether the US intended to get oil from Venezuela.
Although the briefing lasted for nearly 40 minutes, that time was taken up by three reporters in the first two rows asking multiple questions and follow-ups.
The Post’s White House reporter Steven Nelson, along with Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, led the outcry and confronted Boak.
“You know, you don’t have to hold the briefing over. We have questions back here,” Nelson said.
“Let her call the briefing if it’s 40 minutes in,” he added.
“There are five rows back here and none of us got to ask a question,” said Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett.
“Why did you call it?” asked Sweet. “Why did you do it?”
“Can we have an explanation?” Nelson followed up.
As Boak began to answer, reporters in the back asked for “courtesy” and suggested that those sitting in the front rows — who represent wire services and TV networks, and get the first crack at Psaki — limit themselves to one topic to give others a chance.
“Look, if you want to yell at me, I’m in the [AP] booth. You can do that there,” Boak answered.
At that point, Steve Portnoy of CBS News Radio, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, stepped up to try to calm things down.
As Portnoy explained, it’s traditional for the senior wire reporter at the briefing to “end it when we feel we’ve had enough.”
“Clearly, we have felt that we have not had enough,” he went on. “So there might be appropriate — an opportunity for we as a press corps to collectively decide when we’ve had enough, and to send that signal on our behalf to the AP man or woman so that he or she can signal to the secretary that we have had enough,” he said.
“I think it’s appropriate for us collectively as a unit, as a press corps, to reach that accommodation,” Portnoy said.
Although Biden had no public events on his schedule, some reporters wanted the briefing to end in time for them to watch an afternoon event with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Boak said he had “discussions” with people, whom he didn’t identify, who told him they “needed an out at 3:30 and I obliged them.” That led to more outrage, with journalists noting that Boak had indulged himself by asking Psaki three questions.
“If you knew you had an out, then why don’t you guys limit yourself to one topic?” Halkett of Al Jazeera said from her seat in the sixth row.
“You don’t think we all have assignments? We don’t have editors? We don’t have deadlines?” she asked.
From the fifth row, Sweet chimed in: “Right, if you agree on the out, why don’t you organize yourself on how you conduct yourself during the briefing?”
Sweet added that Psaki or her deputy Karine Jean-Pierre is capable of ending the briefing on their own and that the tradition of the AP calling the briefing should end.
“I understand all the traditions that we have,” said Sweet, who has been covering the White House since the early 1990s. “Maybe it’s time to end the tradition. And Jen and her colleagues are fully capable of saying, ‘I’ve got to go now.’ And let’s just end it. No one deserves to have to feel that responsibility.”
Sweet pressed her point later in the discussion, arguing, “Today does represent a tipping point in the 100 years I’ve been coming here … Maybe the time-honored tradition — Helen Thomas, don’t tell me — of having the senior wire reporter end the briefing may be to make things going forward, we end that tradition and let the White House end the briefing.”
Portnoy pointed out that Psaki was partially responsible for restoring the practice of letting a reporter call the briefing, which had been allowed to lapse during the Trump administration.
“I think that when Jen came in as press secretary, she made a conscious decision to try to honor the long-standing positions of the room,” Portnoy said.
“She obviously must have felt and I’m sure she does today that it was either in our interests or something that we would have preferred. Obviously, the people before us have a different view of that,” he continued, adding that “it’s not right that one reporter should command the floor and hold it for too long.”
Reporters said the tradition has made those in the back of the briefing room irrelevant.
“Really they ought to just kill out the back three rows, because they’re not going to get called on, and make things a little more spacious like the State Department briefing room, because why bother cramming us all in here to serve as potted plants?” said Newsmax TV’s James Rosen.
Thomas, the longtime White House reporter for several outlets, most famously United Press International, was the most prominent keeper of the tradition of calling press briefings over. Veteran correspondents still recall Thomas scanning the room to gauge her peers’ reaction before ending a briefing.
One longtime White House press veteran endorsed changes in response to Monday’s unprecedented briefing room debate, saying the back rows had a “legitimate complaint.”