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Sean Spicer And The White Press Operation

May 16, 2017

Andrew Marantz nails it.

President Trump seems to have no tolerance for boring television. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, now a recurring character on “Saturday Night Live,” is often tongue-tied, enraged, or both. Spicer’s briefings, broadcast live on c-span, are among the most highly rated programs on daytime TV, beating out “General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.” On major networks, many hours are devoted to nightly exegeses of Spicer’s serial self-contradictions, and to Sunday-morning sermons about how he is imperilling the First Amendment. On YouTube, accounts with names such as Trump Mafia and Based Patriot repost Spicer’s briefings, and others post exultant compilations of the “spiciest” moments, overlaying his rebukes of reporters with images of flames and chili peppers. 

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, in the West Wing, has seven rows of seven seats. The Associated Press, Reuters, and the biggest TV networks have reserved seats in the front row; blogs like Politico and Real Clear Politics are near the middle; BuzzFeed and the BBC are in the back. The seating chart is the purview of the White House Correspondents’ Association, an independent board of journalists who, with the sombre secrecy of a papal conclave, assess news organizations according to factors such as regularity of coverage and centrality to the national discourse.

There are also correspondents who might be called floaters—those who have White House credentials but no assigned seat. Some floaters work for outlets that are too new to have been included in the most recent seating chart; others work for outlets that are marginal or disreputable. When press briefings are half empty, floaters can find vacant seats. In the early days of the Trump Administration, when each day’s briefing is oversubscribed, floaters pack the aisles, angling for a spot visible from the podium. The paradigmatic example of a floater is Raghubir Goyal, an amiable, somewhat absent-minded man in his sixties. Goyal claims to represent the India Globe, a newspaper that, as far as anyone can tell, is defunct. Nevertheless, he has attended briefings since the Carter Administration, and has asked so many questions about Indo-American relations that his name has become a verb. “To Goyal”: to seek out a reporter who is likely to provide a friendly question, or a moment of comic relief. All press secretaries get cornered, and all have, on occasion, Goyaled their way out. But no one Goyals like Spicer.

President Trump, by most accounts, is rarely too busy to watch TV, especially when he is the topic. “Look at his daily schedule, and you’ll notice how few events are held between 1 and 2 p.m.,” the radio correspondent told me. This is the hour during which Spicer almost always conducts his briefings. The correspondent continued, “I sometimes feel like I’m too busy to go to the briefings, and going to them is my job. The thought that the President of the United States might take the time to sit through an entire briefing, much less all of them, is, frankly, mind-boggling.” Another correspondent pointed out how often press aides deliver notes to Spicer while he’s at the lectern, and how obediently Spicer.

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