For about an hour every day, reporters gather to lob questions at the White House press secretary, whose job it is to say as little as possible that hasn’t already been said. It is a televised exercise in diminishing returns, aggravated by a press corps that’s heavily weighted toward correspondents who need a piece of tape showing the press secretary saying something we already know, often that he just said to another reporter, and by an extremely disciplined press secretary in Josh Earnest. When White House reporters do stray from the well-worn question of the day, Earnest is well-prepared to deliver boilerplate for any occasion, sometimes mixing and matching. Whereas his predecessor Jay Carney was known to “appreciate the question,” Earnest has developed his own verbal briefing mantra: “Let me answer that in a couple of different ways.”
That usually means you’re about to have several different strands of talking-point spaghetti thrown at your question, and even if they don’t stick, it’s time to move on.
Even under these conditions, though, there are useful exchanges and information to be gleaned from White House daily briefings, if you know where to look. If you don’t have time to watch every briefing, every day, here’s your guide to skipping ahead to the good parts. This isn’t intended to be a list of the best White House reporters, many of whom don’t leave a consistent footprint at briefings. These are the White House reporters whose questions consistently net results that are useful in some way, and whom you should watch.
Technically, he’s not a reporter, but if you pay close attention and know what to look for, current White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest can be a wealth of information about the Obama administration. Your first stop should be the announcements he makes at the top of the briefing, which give you a sense of what the administration’s priorities are on any given day, and which most reporters are liable to ignore. Next, if you watch Josh answer the same questions from several different reporters (even just the ones on our list), often you will see a boiling-down of his responses through repetition that gives you a window into the strategy sessions that precede the briefings. For example, on the CRomnibus, Earnest repeatedly emphasized the lack of onerous Obamacare-killing, immigration-bashing Republican riders in the bill, possibly a truer reflection of the President’s thinking than his own public statement on the matter.
ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jon Karl had some huge shoes to fill when Jake Tapper left for CNN, and he has done so by taking one aspect of the Tapper toolkit, the ostentatiously adversarial question, and dialing it up to eleven. This can make for some great television, as I’m sure ABC has noticed, and some painful head-desking, but if you want to hear the best argument for and against the administration on a given topic, you can skip right to Jon Karl on the YouTube slider. How Josh Earnest handles Karl’s jabs is often an effective bellwether to how the administration will fare with the rest of the Beltway press.
Karl also benefits from his broadcast pedigree, which makes him a better behind-the-scenes reporter than he otherwise might be without the access that affords.
Fox News Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry, on the other hand, has taken the showy grilling past eleven, and past where it is useful to news consumers. Since joining Fox News, his embrace of that network’s audience, and its point of view, has served to compromise his credibility as a journalist, and his relationship with this White House. It wasn’t always like that. As regular Banter readers know, Henry was a longtime White House correspondent for CNN prior to his move to Fox, and even earned himself a snub from George W. Bush at a 2007 press conference. When Henry took over the Fox spot, even Media Mattersdidn’t have a hell of a lot to say about it. During his first year or so at the network, he played it straight, even as Fox producers undermined his objectivity. Eventually, though, Henry took to the conservative Fox news culture with gusto.
While his showy, loaded exchanges with Earnest aren’t worth much (Earnest has managed to avoid being drawn into the Fox blood feud), Ed Henry has retained the knack for effective questioning that he’s always had, and occasionally, the result is a useful nugget. That’s more than you can say for most other reporters.
CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett honed his White House chops for Fox News, and even when he was with Fox, Media Matters couldn’t really pin anything on him. After a brief exit from television to a spot with National Journal, Garrett joined a crack CBS team that includes White House Human Wikipedias Mark Knoller and Bill Plante. If you watch only one reporter, it should be Garrett, because while he eschews theatrics, his questions always crystallize the substance of issues that other reporters miss. He’s not asking questions he already knows the answer to, and if Major Garrett doesn’t know something, chances are you don’t, either.
This doesn’t always result in concrete news value, but Garrett’s knowledge of policy and substantive approach almost always result in responses that are usefully clarifying.
The Hill White House Correspondent Justin Sink is one of the unsung heroes of the White House daily briefings. Hidden behind a sleepy demeanor and a Beltway fascination with palace intrigue is Sink’s ability to divine the most salient Congress-centric issues and conflicts, which, in turn, affords the opportunity to take the White House’s temperature on those issues. Earnest frequently ends up telling Sink that he doesn’t have “any calls with congressional leaders to read out to you,” but also ends up setting out the White House’s strategic thinking where Congress is concerned. With two years of a Republican-controlled Congress yawning out before us, Sink’s little corner of the briefing will become more valuable.
Briefing Room Middle Earth
If you’ve still got time after you’ve reviewed these reporters’ work on any given day, look for questions from reporters who inhabit the middle-to-back rows. Josh Earnest skips around a lot, so this isn’t as easy as it once was, but there are lots of hidden gems out there, from the social justice grillings of AURN‘s April Ryan and The Washington Blade‘s Chris Johnson to the conservative thought-stylings ofTheBlaze.com‘s Fred Lucas. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.