06.08.10

The Battle for Helen Thomas' Seat

The dean of the White House press corps resigned amid the furor over her Israel comments. Now, the real trouble begins: Richard Wolffe reports on the prickly egos on the beat vying for her front-row perch. Plus, The Daily Beast rounds up blackballed celebrities, from Mel Gibson to Don Imus—and finds out what punishment they were dealt.

The battle over White House press corps dean Helen Thomas’ controversial comments about Israel burned bright and flared out quickly, with Thomas announcing her resignation just hours after the clamor began in earnest. But no sooner had it ended than another, far nastier struggle began: the fight over her coveted front-row center seat in the White House briefing room.

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Thomas, a columnist for Hearst newspapers, had been rewarded the prime perch in recognition of her service covering presidents for the last five decades. The race to replace her also sets off a reshuffling of the seats behind her—triggering fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying with the White House Correspondents Association, which administers the seating chart. The campaign pits old media against new media, print vs. broadcast—and, in the hothouse flower world of journalists covering the president of the United States—egos the size of the federal deficit, in a showdown as neurotic as it is personal. The early money is on Fox, but the newly beefed-up Bloomberg News operation, currently slotted in the second row, is making a run at it.

The flap began last week, when Thomas made impromptu remarks caught on camera by a rabbi visiting the White House. Asked about Israel, Thomas said: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine,” and suggested residents of the Jewish state should “go home” to Poland and Germany. The rabbi’s video went viral, former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called for her head, and the White House Correspondents Association issued a rare condemnation of a reporter’s comments.

Soon thereafter, news broke that Thomas, who is Lebanese and had made no secret of her pro-Arab views, had tendered her resignation. “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians,” she said in a statement. “They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

Thomas’ seat is prized for its prominence in front of both the briefer—at the moment, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs—and the bank of TV cameras to the right of the podium. Her position is a result of the last big reshuffling—in 2007, when the briefing room was given its first extensive remodeling since the Reagan era.

During Reagan’s tenure, movie-theater rows of seats were first installed. In the remodeling, another seat was added to each row, while the room lost its back row—a consolidation made to clear space for TV equipment.

Thomas had her own seat in the old briefing room, but she had long ceased to work for the old wire organization UPI. She was a columnist and the only opinion writer with a dedicated seat among the rows of wire reporters, TV and radio correspondents, and print hacks.

Then, as now, the fight for seats was intense.

Two cable TV networks, which covered the White House intensively, were pressing hard for their own front row spots, alongside the three main networks. The arguments laid out by CNN and Fox News were strong, in terms of their constant coverage of the White House and the resources spent on travel. But CNN won by dint of having covered the White House longer than its more recent rival.

Thomas held on to her seat for a number of special reasons, according to those on the White House Correspondents Association board.

At the time, Thomas was prepared to move back to the second row, but a number of prominent White House reporters intervened. Thomas was in faltering health and it looked unseemly to downgrade her status. She had also just won new legions of fans for her persistent and forthright questions and statements on the war in Iraq, at a time when left-wing critics accused the rest of the White House press corps of being far too timid on the subject.

Fox accepted CNN’s prior place in the pecking order, and the network did not complain loudly about Thomas holding on to her front-row seat.

Behind the front row, almost every other news organization was battling for status. Politico was a new entrant in 2007, determined to land a prominent berth without waiting its turn. Older players like CBS Radio wanted to move up. And legacy publications like Newsweek and Time insisted on keeping their seats, even though by that point their reporters rarely—if ever—attended the press briefings. (Full disclosure: I was Newsweek’s senior White House correspondent at the time. I later served on the board of the White House Correspondents Association, but took no role in the assigning of seats.)

Three years on from those heated disputes, the status struggles have only grown more complex. Newsweek no longer has a dedicated White House correspondent. Politico is no longer a newcomer. The White House pool, which seemed to be heading for extinction, now includes Web-only organizations like The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. In contrast, regional newspapers have further shrunk in number and there are rarely enough reporters to fill the press charter planes that used to travel with Air Force One.

“There are only 15 to 20 people here every single day,” said one WHCA board member. “We’re going to have to look at whether news organizations cover the president on a daily basis and make significant contributions to the pool. As you move further back from the front row, those factors loom larger.”

Fox’s patience in 2007 may now be rewarded with Thomas’ coveted chair. But the final decision is not expected until mid-July, when the new WHCA board takes over. Until then, the Thomas seat will be filled by that day's "pool" print reporter, who shares their reports with all news organizations covering the White House.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.