Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy Not-Holidays, Banter members. As part of my (hopefully) never-ending quest to bring you as close to the inside of the White House beat as is humanly possible, I was searching through my archives this weekend, and I found a real treat: a reporter’s eye view of being called on by White House Pres Secretary Robert Gibbs. This particular clip is rare and special for a few reasons, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first, let me explain a little bit about being a lowly freelancer who gets to ask a question.
As regular readers of this site know, asking questions at White House briefings isn’t as simple as it looks, and it really does look simple. There are a variety of techniques to consider, and a variety of goals to aim for, most of which will net you nothing, and all of which are complicated greatly for the small-fry. The big TV, print, and online outfits can afford to whiff, because they’ll get 10-15 at bats per week, but for most small or independent outlets, questions are few and far between, and constitute the most access we’re likely to get on the beat.
Under Gibbs ,our task was made more difficult by the fact that he took questions in a fairly precise, front-to-back order, which meant that of the three or four questions I’d thought up at the beginning of the briefing, at least two were likely to have already been asked twice by the time he called on me. Since I only got called on about 3 or 4 times a month, I always wanted to get in 2 or 3 questions, which meant I had to think up 5 or 6 bullet-proof questions every briefing, then narrow them down in an instant, without forgetting any part of them. This is also easier than it sounds, because every question must be precisely worded in order to avoid giving Gibbs a way to eject from the question.
With all of that in mind, you also have to not just blank in the middle of a question, and you also have to listen to the answer while you’re preparing to punce into your next question, because if you take even half a breath after your first question is answered, somebody will jump right in and steal the rest of your turn. This is why I always announce how many questions I’m about to ask.
It’s also a high-pressure environment, peer-wise. You’re surrounded by people who all have more experience than you do, some of whom are not shy about fairly heckling a question they don’t find useful, and many of whom are living legends, so there’s that.
The clip I’m going to show you is extra-special, though, because it’s one of the few briefings that I shot from a true reporter perspective (most of my recordings were for audio only, since the video was usually available online a few hours later), and it is the only White House daily briefing ever to be conducted in the Rose Garden of the White House. As a result, turnout for that briefing was about double what it usually was, and instead of sitting in the 4th row where I usually was, I got to stand near the front in the loudest blue suit Gene Tayburn ever rejected, and had to wait for them to pass me the microphone as I roasted in the 80 degree heat, with everyone in the world staring at me. Here’s how that felt (if you’d like to follow along, the White House video is here):
The first question was a whiff, but if I remember correctly, the second one did pretty well, as White House vs. Fox News stuff always did. For me, though, the health care question was more important than the answers I did or didn’t get, because one of the most important parts of my audience was that garden full of reporters. Someone had pushed for that health care law to include years of denied insurance for gravely ill Americans, and even if Gibbs didn’t want to explain who or why that was, those reporters would at least have to ask themselves those questions. At least for an instant, it wouldn’t be about horse races and sound bites and process. There are more than a few ways to make your questions count.