[Viewpoint] Competing for coveted seat

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[Viewpoint] Competing for coveted seat

The White House correspondents gathered at the briefing room on Aug. 3, but we were not there to listen to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. This time around, the reporters had come to learn who would take the seat that had been occupied by Helen Thomas, 90, a legendary journalist who covered the White House for more than 50 years.

Thomas retired dishonorably after making inappropriate comments about Jewish people two months ago.

The briefing room at the White House is not grand. The room has seven rows of chairs, each row with seven seats. So that means only 49 reporters can be seated in the briefing room at any one time.

The seats in the first row are occupied by broadcast journalists and wire services reporters. Two major American newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, occupy seats in the second row.

Time and Newsweek reporters sit in the fifth row. And the center seat in the front row had always been occupied by Thomas.

With many photographers covering the story, Jennifer Loven of The Associated Press assumed the “best seat in the house,” which had been empty for two months.

Loven has been serving as a White House press correspondent for eight years, but it was not hard to read from her flushed face the pressure and sense of responsibility she felt from taking the symbolically important seat.

Until the White House Correspondents’ Association designated the A.P. as the new owner of this highly coveted seat, many media outlets competed over Thomas’ former seat, each explaining why they deserved this piece of prime real estate.

It was not just Thomas’ seat that Loven has inherited. She now also has the right to ask the first question.

She chose to ask Gibbs three times about the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Reuters, CNN and New York Times correspondents followed up with more questions.

Gibbs began taking questions at the first row, and when he was about halfway into the third row, he suddenly looked at his watch. He said, “Thank you, friends,” and hurried from the room.

The reporters seated in the back rows had raised their hands a number of times, but when Gibbs left, they all got up quietly as if they had expected they would not get a chance.

In Korea, you would not find such a system at the Blue House or at any other briefing rooms in government agencies. Reporters do not have designated seats nor are they given priority in asking questions. Broadcasters, newspapers and Internet media are all assumed to carry the same amount of weight.

We cannot say one way is better than the other. I thought Gibbs could have been more generous as I watched an older reporter with gray hair raising his hand enthusiastically.

If you are familiar with the proposal to close down the correspondents’ room, which the previous administration had advocated, you might find that the established American media outlets are being too defensive of their own turf in the system at the White House.

However, you need to contemplate one other matter. The White House certainly has a genuine amount of respect for media organizations that have more impact with citizens and that have accumulated great confidence and authority over the years.

The Americans agree that the indomitable will to investigate the truth and the endless efforts to deliver in-depth reports are what have made The New York Times and the Washington Post what they are today.

They also believe that the Times and the Post are more qualified to take seats near the front. While the highly respected National Public Radio (NPR) did not get a spot in the front row, it did manage to move up from the third row to the second row.

NPR welcomed the change in the seat configuration and said, “Where you sit in the briefing room makes a palpable difference in how much access you have and how much attention is paid to your question. Everyone wants to be closer to the front so they can be more a part of the action and bring more to their audiences. We are no exception.”

To me, they were not competing for the seat so much as they were competing to become a better press.


*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Jung-wook

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