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Inside the Briefing: Reality TV At Its Worst

whgaggle1.jpgThe briefing wrapped up about 90 minutes ago, but we’ve been talking with reporters and being interviewed by various news agencies, so we’re just now getting around to our afternoon report.

We were also just standing outside the briefing room when someone apparently sort of tried to jump the White House fence, creating a security “kerfuffle” in one reporter’s words. This is a bizarre work environment to say the least.

Full non-live-blogging of the press briefing after the jump.

Anyway, the briefing. A press staffer announced the two minute warning about 23 minutes late–which, again, is just about on time. McClellan (who, wearing a navy suit, blue shirt and red tie looked suspiciously like Fishbowl’s twin today) took the podium about 30 seconds later. “Two minute warning, huh?” One reporter said in a stage whisper. “It’s a Bush administration two minutes,” McClellan shot back, referencing the notoriously early-running (impatient?) administration.

The afternoon press briefing is a very different beast than the morning gaggle. Bright made-for-TV lights illuminate the room, camera crews took up their positions at the front and the back of the room, and the TV correspondents line up in the front rows. ABC’s Terry Moran, CBS’ John Roberts, WH press doyenne Helen Thomas, Fox’s Carl Cameron, and NBC’s Norah O’Donnell were all there. Feeling a little braver with one full gaggle under our belt, we moved up a few rows and took Newsweek’s chair.

Unlike the gaggle, this time the briefing room was only about half-full–and it dwindled through the questions as many of the camera crews left to cover Marine One’s departure from the South Lawn in the middle of the briefing. The President, as we noted earlier, is off to Pittsburgh for the afternoon.

We’d been warned by a regular White House correspondent over the weekend that the “zoo” of the briefing would likely leave us knowing less and being more confused than when went in. Having sat through it now, we have to agree. Watching it on television doesn’t quite do justice to the uselessness of many of the exchanges back and forth, nor the intensity of Scott McClellan’s withering gaze nor the frustration boiling up in the reporters’ voices as they butt their heads up against a rhetoric wall.

McClellan began with a roundup of this afternoon’s schedule and a speech tomorrow to the National Defense University. Then into the questions. A question about the as-yet-unannounced Josh Bolton nomination got a wry smile from McClellan before he clarified that he wasn’t going to step on the announcement at 1 p.m. at the State Department. More questions. Syria this. Lebanon that. ABC’s Terry Moran asked several questions about the war on terror and the rendition of terror suspects to countries that might, just might, promote torture in interrogations. That launched Scott McClellan into his war on terror talking points, and got Moran basically no where closer to finding an answer to his questions.

Then CBS’ John Roberts got into a little tiff with McClellan about private accounts and Social Security, where Roberts kept trying to get McClellan to answer a yes-no question with either a “yes” or a “no.” The exchange finished with McClellan saying in a gentle snap, “I don’t know what part you’re not hearing,” and Roberts saying, “It’s the N-O portion I’m not hearing.”

Then it was on to more Social Security, Syria, the shooting of the Italian journalist in Iraq, Hong Kong, back to renditions and the war on terror. All of this, mind you, is conducted with Marine One’s rotors thumping just a few hundred feet away until it took off right about on schedule at 1:30 p.m. A few minutes later, all of the camera crews and correspondents who went out to watch the President board tramp back through the side door of the briefing room, shedding equipment, coats, and bags as they go.

At 1:37 p.m., Scott McClellan abruptly says “thanks” and leaves the podium.

(For the record, we didn’t ask a question, although we had one ready about the comments last week by FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith regarding regulating political activity on the internet.)

As McClellan walked out, one reporter turned to his colleague at the end of the briefing: “Why do they have to send terror suspects to Uzbekistan to be tortured? Just make them sit here and after a few hours of a briefing, they’ll be begging to talk.” After sitting through one, we tend to agree.

We’re going to take off soon as the day is winding down and head over to the MSNBC studios, where Fishbowl has been asked to be a guest on “Connected Coast-to-Coast” with Monica Crowley and Ron Reagan. All day, our presence in the belly of the beast has been attracting interest from reporters of various persuasions. Three most frequently asked questions: “What’s a Blogger?” “You’re wearing pants?” and “Are you really sober?”

We chatted for a while post-briefing with Connie Lawn of Audio Video News, who was Jeff Gannon’s seatmate during his time here. More on her and our other impressions later…

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