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Carney Mixes it Up Nicely in the Briefing Room

Well that was delightful.

There was more energy and quality questioning in the White House briefing room today than I’ve heard in ages.

That’s because newly installed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took some chances and allowed a sense of spontaneity to reign during the briefing.

Apologies, I forgot to live stream it.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on his first day briefing last Wednesday, February 16. Photo by Keith Koffler

Carney started out in the front of the room, as all press secretaries do. And then he mixed it up. He called on someone in the very back row – unheard of! He allowed people to follow up on others’ questions, to butt in a little bit, and to ask several questions even if they don’t work for NBC.

This is a change – possibly only temporary – from the regimen has prevailed since Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer instituted the prevailing Schoolmarm Approach of calling on reporters one by one, going row by row – starting with TV bigshots and top newspaper scribes in the first couple of rows.

This tamed what had been a lively free-for-all under the Clinton press secretaries – a more Democratic pecking order based mainly on who could shout the loudest and was most eager to ask their question.

Jay Carney on his first day briefing
The view of the press secretary from the back of the room isn't so bad anymore. Photo by Keith Koffler

Ari’s approach, emulated by all his successors, limited follow up questions and the type of grilling a press secretary should be forced to withstand. In lieu of an atmosphere of barely controlled chaos, each reporter now dutifully recited their often unrelated questions, frequently pompously holding the floor for ten minutes or so while their Very Important Questions were answered.

This encouraged showboating and incentivized those called on by the press secretary to start asking questions whether they had anything probing to throw out there or not, since, you know, it was their turn.

Questioning often didn’t get beyond the third of fourth row, especially when the molasses mouthed Robert Gibbs ran the show.

Today, sharp queries popped up all over the room, as those who came to do battle got their opportunity. Carney still called on people, but his more democratic approach helped add new pep to the usually turgid proceedings. Adding new perspectives brought in some unexpected angles and increased the variety or questions.

Democracy and the cause of providing accountability to the White House were served.

One question, from an older member of the press corps, got into something that the front row could hardly be thinking about.

My question is if we should have a government shutdown, would the people still get paid, or — I was going to ask about Social Security, because obviously that would affect me.  (Laughter.) Is that — what you just said, that’s not going to be touched?  Or you don’t know yet, or what’s going to happen?

Now, this doesn’t mean Jay was necessarily answering a lot of the questions. He was hard to move from his talking points. But as he gets more at ease and earns the trust of his superiors, hopefully this will change.

The best White House communicators I’ve dealt with were from the Clinton administration. So perhaps a little spontaneity works well for the press secretary too, giving him a chance to spin on a variety of topics while making his message seem more natural.

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5 Responses to Carney Mixes it Up Nicely in the Briefing Room

  1. Keith, great report.

    I am glad that Carney livened things up … its odd, I would have thought he would have remained the non-plussed, quiet, controlled robot most Press Secretaries seem to be. It’s interesting how you talked about Carney taking questions from the back; thats good sigh (hopefully).

    “Molasses mouthed” – oh my thats good. My cheeks already hurt thinking about it (but I laughed my ass off anyway!)