West Wing Story: Musical Chairs

Recently, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer reshuffled the seating chart in the White House briefing room. The changes included moving all the news-magazine reporters a few rows back.

THE SWITCH CAUSED ENOUGH of a flap that it even became fodder for Conan O'Brien's late-night comedy show the other day. As he put it: "The good seats were given to reporters from President Bush's favorite magazines, Highlights and Ranger Rick."

Thanks, Conan. In truth, they moved Fox and Bloomberg closer in, which is only fair since the briefings are most useful to TV and wire service reporters, who traditionally sit in the front--on Power Row. In order to move up the two relative newcomers, everybody else got switched around. I went from Row 3 to Row 6 (out of eight total). The New York Times moved up a row, while The New York Daily News moved back one--into my old seat. (Sorry about the gum, guys.)

At first, it looks like just another efficiency overhaul from the businesslike Bush White House. They are even trying to call on reporters in order. But the daily briefings have always been more "Romper Room" than boardroom. Despite the official little brass plaques on our seats, there has always been a game of musical chairs at briefing time. For all the White House's best efforts to streamline it, yesterday's briefing looked like a Conan skit.

I decided to stand near the door instead of sit near the electrical unit. "Why are you standing?" a colleague asked. "My nose started bleeding in Row 6," I joked. Plus, if I needed to make an early exit to go do some work, I wouldn't have to duck under the TV cameras and risk tripping over the morass of cable that strews the room--some of which lead to nowhere. (Fleischer's master plan involves remodeling the entire room, but who wants to temporarily house the national press corps?)

From my vantage point I could see the new seating chart clearly. The Power Row was present and accounted for, as usual. But then the organization scheme started to fall apart. Empty seats in Row 2 had quickly been filled with two squatters: Raghubir Goyal, who works for the Indian Globe and invariably asks about India, Pakistan or Kashmir (reporters call him Goyal the Foil, because he can derail a line of questioning). And Lester Kinsolving, a Baltimore radio personality known for his wacky questions. Normally, Les, as he's known, stands on the sidelines and waits until the end of the briefing to ask his peculiar, and often entertaining, questions. But with the switcheroo, he's started to claim seats--up front. Yesterday he was sitting in the seat designated for The New York Times. When the rightful occupant came in a few minutes late and tried to reclaim his seat, Les told him: "It's not your seat if you're late"

Chief press wrangler Reed Dickens had to go over and tell Les to move. Which he did--directly in front of the podium to another empty seat in Row 2. Because the White House has committed to calling on reporters in order, Les got his questions on Gary Hart and the U.S. Postal Service in even before USA Today and Bloomberg. So did Goyal, who asked about a protest by 100 Indian-Americans against U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

Les and Goyal aren't the only squatters, just the most aggressive. I looked longingly at my old seat in the third row only to find that it was filled not by the New York Daily News reporter but rather by a reporter for something called Audio Visual News. The Daily News reporter didn't cause a stink. "I'm half French-Canadian so I'm going to sit in the AFP seat," he said. Agence France-Presse that is. There must be something about that seat: He even asked a question about France's position on the coalition against Saddam Hussein.

Attendance was sparse. That's no indictment of Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who is briefing us this week while Fleischer is on his honeymoon; there are always empty seats. The last of the eight rows is usually filled with guests and cameramen reading the newspaper. Newspaper reading, however, is not limited to the rows out of the camera's easy view. I spied one reporter doing a crossword puzzle and another reading the funnies in the third and fourth rows yesterday.

The untold secret of the White House briefings is this: reporters never ask a question that they really want to know the answer to. Perennial Power Rower herself, Helen Thomas, will tell underlings that. (The octogenarian Thomas, who works for Hearst newspapers these days, is the only reporter who has her name instead of the name of her organization on the little brass plaque affixed to the seat.) The reason is that if you get a real answer rather than spin, you'll have to share it with the whole press corps. But, mostly, because you'll never get a real answer.

Ever since the briefings became televised under Bill Clinton, they have morphed into made-for-TV events. "We do not comment on intelligence matters from this podium," McClellan said today as if reading from a rulebook. But sometimes, away from the klieg lights, they will. In the briefings, the questions and answers are often less substance than semantics. Reporters try to trick the press secretary into committing news, and he tries to make reporters look badgering and biased. Fleischer recently told The New York Times that reporters do a lot of "peacocking" at the briefings to impress their bosses. Conan, no doubt, will be tuning in for more material.