Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas resigned abruptly on Monday after video surfaced of her instructing Israelis to “get the hell out of Palestine” at a Jewish Heritage Celebration. The White House Correspondents’ Association is in charge of filling her coveted front-center seat in the Brady Press Briefing Room —but how do they decide who sits where?
Size. The best seats go to the biggest outlets with the most resources and the highest subscriber or viewer bases. The association also takes into account the length of time an organization has been on the White House beat and whether its reporters volunteer to participate in “pool rotation”—that is, follow the president around all day and write up “pool reports” for their colleagues. Since press secretaries tend to solicit most of their questions from the front of the pack, the first couple of rows are widely considered prime real estate. When a vacancy opens up or the association decides to reshuffle the deck, any news organization—even bloggers—can apply for a spot, but, again, it all comes down to size and commitment to White House coverage. In the current seating arrangement, network news behemoths ABC, CBS, and NBC have front-row seats, right next to cable news powerhouse CNN and the two big news wires, the Associated Press and Reuters, while high-profile print publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal take up the second row. Meanwhile, smaller organizations like the Christian Broadcasting Network and Dallas Morning News languish in relative exile in the seventh and last row.
The Association typically grants seats to organizations, not individuals. Helen Thomas was an exception. When she left United Press International in 2000, after 40 years of covering the White House, the board let her retain her prominent seat because she was such a fixture.
If you have your nameplate on any seat at all, you’d be wise to keep it warm, as repeated absences can get you (and your organization) booted during the next seat shake-up. But if a news outlet somehow ends up on the association’s bad side, all is not lost. There’s always standing room, where 30 to 60 people—cameramen, photographers, and journalists—cram into a large horseshoe formation around the main grid of 49 chairs facing the podium. While the press briefing room appears spacious when packed with professionals, it’s actually rather small, about the size of a large living room.
Midterm changes to the seating chart are quite rare. (Before a massive 2007 briefing-room renovation, during which eight rows of six chairs were replaced with seven rows of seven, the chart had not been changed since very early in the Bush administration.) It’s likely that the association will wait until its new board members take over in mid-July before convening a three-person committee to review applications and select a replacement for Helen Thomas. Until then, a rotating daily pool reporter will use her seat.
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Explainer thanks David Jackson, incoming president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.