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White House reporters say Biden team wanted questions in advance

"The key here, it seems, is whether this process is being used to stage the briefings or simply to prepare for them," said media critic Jeffrey McCall.

Published: February 2, 2021 3:42pm

Updated: February 3, 2021 10:10am

The Daily Beast on Monday published a rather scathing piece about the new Biden White House and its press operation.

"White House Reporters: Biden Team Wanted Our Questions in Advance," blared the headline.

"If you're a reporter with a tough question for the White House press secretary, Joe Biden's staff wouldn't mind knowing about it in advance," said the lead. "According to three sources with knowledge of the matter, as well as written communications reviewed by The Daily Beast, the new president's communications staff have already on occasion probed reporters to see what questions they plan on asking new White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when called upon during briefings."

Pretty damning report. The Fourth Estate is protected in the Constitution and its job is to demand answers from America's political leaders, without fear or prejudice. The idea that the media, already viewed as liberal and supportive of Democrats — from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Biden to congressional lawmakers — could be colluding with the White House provoked alarm.

"The left demands 100 percent loyalty from the press, not the 99 percent they already get," Media Research Center Vice President Dan Gainor told Fox News.

"In today's cancel culture, journalists don't dare be open in their criticism, so that's why this story is all whispers," said Gainor.

The Beast's report drew other questions, though. Was the White House simply trying to find out what reporters were interested in on any given day, or asking for the exact questions they would ask the press secretary in the daily briefing?

Citing anonymous sources, the Beast said it was the latter. "[T]he press can't really do its job in the briefing room if the White House is picking and choosing the questions they want," one White House correspondent told the website. "That's not really a free press at all."

Biden's press team "did not deny that staffers had solicited questions from reporters," said the Beast. "But the White House contended that it has tried to foster a better relationship with the press corps than the previous administration, and has tried to reach out to reporters directly in order to avoid appearing to dodge questions during briefings."

The White House sought to explain. "Our goal is to make the daily briefing as useful and informative as possible for both reporters and the public," a White House spokesperson said. "Part of meeting that objective means regularly engaging with the reporters who will be in the briefing room to understand how the White House can be most helpful in getting them the information they need. That two-way conversation is an important part of keeping the American people updated about how government is serving them."

There is room for nuance here. In the old days, before President Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House almost daily held something called a "gaggle." Around 9 a.m., reporters would cram into the press secretary's office to ask questions in an on-the-record, off-camera scrum.

The gaggle served a couple of purposes: The White House could learn what interested reporters on that day and, more importantly, prepare answers for the afternoon's on-camera briefing. That way, the briefing would not be filled with the press secretary appearing to dodge questions because of lack of information.

What's more, members of the "lower press office" — where junior press aides who interact more often with reporters work — would often drop back to the media area and shoot the breeze, sometimes asking what everyone's working on. It was a chance to put a bug in their ears about a topic.

So, the White House press operation is often well aware of what reporters are working on, and the process serves both sides well: The media can get answers to their questions, and the White House can prepare those answers in advance, crafting exactly what it wants to say.

While some liberal sites and networks ignored the Beast story, Fox News discussed it at length.

"I think there were two different sides of this," Bret Baier, host of "Special Report," said in a segment with John Roberts, a longtime White House correspondent. "One is if they're asking for specific questions like, to the letter of what the reporter is going to ask.

"But John was chief White House correspondent, as was I, and they used to have a thing called the gaggle, where a press secretary would have everybody in there and say, 'Hey what's on your mind?' so that the press secretary, by the time the briefing came around, was ready with answers instead of saying, 'I'm going to circle back with you and get you answers.'"

"So there's a difference between 'What's on your mind?' and 'Give me the verbatim of what you're going to ask,'" Baier said.

"I'm not sure just exactly how nefarious this is," Roberts said. "I'd like to know: Were people asked about specific questions? ... But if they ask specific questions and included or excluded reporters as a result of that — which I don't know that they're doing — that would be bad."

In a later segment, Roberts and Joe Concha, a reporter from The Hill, bounced around some ideas.

"It appears we are talking about questions," Concha said, citing the Beast story saying the White House wanted questions, not topics. "And the optics here, John, are horrible, quite frankly."

"There's no question," Roberts said, "that there's a big difference between, 'What issues or what information are you looking for today?' and 'What questions are you going to ask?'

"If the White House is looking to help reporters to fill out their stories and actually get information out there to benefit the public by asking what issues they might be interested in inquiring about is one thing. But if the White House is doing it so that they look smart on these issues and the press secretary isn't standing there saying, 'Well, I don't have anything for you on that let me go back to the well and see,' that's a different item."

Concha noted that all the same, "we've seen Jen Psaki time and again say she has to circle back on certain information" — which actually became a viral video

And he noted that "this seems to be a pattern that goes back to the Biden campaign in terms of whenever Mr. Biden took questions, it came from a predetermined list of reporters that a staffer called on beforehand."

Roberts sought to examine both sides, saying, "I'm not running defense for the White House or anything on this, but this idea of picking and choosing seems to fall a little flat because Jen Psaki takes questions from everybody who's in that room."

Still, Concha said the whole issue might point to something larger, noting that Psaki was asked a couple of days ago when President Biden will have a "full blown press conference — so not four or five questions from the same reporters, but something in the East Room where you're talking about maybe dozens of questions — and she wouldn't even agree to a general timeframe."

"You kind of got a preview of this during the Obama administration," Concha recalled. "In 2009, President Obama, with a mostly friendly press, went 308 days without giving a solo press conference from his first to his second [terms], so perhaps the Biden plan is to go down that same route here, and boy, wouldn't that be a shame not to hear from the leader of the free world a little bit more."

In the end, DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall summed it up succinctly.

"Every press briefing is a risk situation for the White House, and Psaki should, indeed, want to be responsive and prepared for reporter questions," he told Fox News. "The key here, it seems, is whether this process is being used to stage the briefings or simply to prepare for them."

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