President Obama furthered his goal of establishing a more open and transparent White House Tuesday night by granting credentials to over 160 reporters for his second primetime press conference since taking office. Media outlets represented ranged from veterans like CNN and ABC to some unexpected attendees like The Washington Blade and The Hoya.

Obama, as in his last press conference, called on 13 reporters for questions and follow-ups. He asked for questions from a variety of reporters, hitting major players like ABC as well as two foreign correspondents (all of whom were glossed over in his last press conference), Stars & Stripes – the daily military newspaper – and Ebony Magazine. Obama faces some backlash, especially from reporters, for not calling on any major newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post, while others have praised him for giving an opportunity to members of non-traditional media.

Reporters were asked to arrive at the East gates of the White House between 4 and 6 p.m. to pick up their credentials. After being buzzed through the gates, each presented their IDs to a security guard, put their belongings through a small X-ray machine and exited through the back door of the guard outpost onto a path cutting around the right side of the White House lawn. On the way, they passed television camera after television camera and finally cut down to the White House press briefing room where they picked up their credentials and seating assignments. The press conference would not begin until 8 p.m.

In the interim, the nation’s news gatherers spent time in the briefing room, a surprisingly small room with only 42 seats and a tiny stage where daily press addresses are held, typically with the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Seats filled slowly with reporters on Blackberrys and laptops, some jotting down questions and notes in notebooks, others chatting with old friends – it looked more like a bunch of people sitting in an airport terminal or high school cafeteria than a group of reporters preparing to question the president.

Behind the main press room lies a labyrinth of hallways and stairways where, one reporter said, the real work gets done. The corridors are so narrow that only one-and-a-half people can fit in them at any given time. With 160 reporters walking around the area, most spent the entire time shuffling against the wall, trying to get outside, to the kitchen or back into the main room where at least there was room to exhale. The hallways were lined with small offices for each of the major news outlets – CNN, Reuters, ABC, NPR, etc. – with enough room for four people seated at desks, two facing in each direction, to work. Some, like the ABC office, had sound booths in the back where correspondents were reporting the news live before the press conference began. Others sat outside giving live reports using their cell phones. Still others used Facebook and Twitter to recount their experiences before and, in at least one case, during the press conference.

Helen Thomas, the 88-year-old member of the White House press corps who has covered every presidency since John F. Kennedy, arrived around 5:30 p.m. She was like a rock star, drawing several professional reporters throughout the afternoon to giddily approach her, whether to praise her most recent book or to simply shake her hand.

Beginning at 6:30 p.m., groups of reporters were led up to the White House’s East Room. Officials led them with explicit instructions: There will be no bathrooms once you leave this area, there is no drinking inside the White House and there are no trash cans. A couple of reporters made snarky comments, which only prompted officials to yell more loudly.

The reporters proceeded into the East Room, an elaborately decorated room which houses three large crystal chandeliers, gold curtains and, Tuesday night, 160 gold-painted chairs with numbers on the seats. Television cameras lined all four walls along with photographers and producers, while reporters were seated along the inside of the room. The podium sat in the center of the room against the wall with a door behind it leading into the center of the White House.

Those seated chatted in multiple languages, all of which blended into a dull roar, occasionally broken by a door opening. Some spoke over radios and walkie-talkies to camera crews, while others typed away furiously on laptops and still more pulled out their own personal cameras and camera phones to take pictures of the surrounding room and, later, of senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Gibbs as they quietly slipped into the back.

Just before the press conference began, two reporters rose and stood on the edge of the stage and each gave a 30-second introduction to their respective audiences, speaking over one another, while reporters in the audience chuckled at hearing their peers’ analysis of what the president might say over the next hour.

At 8 p.m. another announcement came over unseen speakers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.”

Everyone in the room quickly stood up and, after a few-seconds delay, Obama jogged into the room, skipped up onto the stage and said, “Hello everybody. Please have a seat.”

Cameras started clicking furiously as Obama looked around the room and began the first part of the press conference – a short address on the state of the economy. When he was finished, he gestured towards a sheet of paper on the podium saying, “All right, with that, let me take some questions. And I’ve got a list here.”

Reporters do not usually know whether or not they will be called on, though past presidents have often stuck with old standbys like The Washington Post and CNN. However, Obama made a significant departure from this precedent in his last press conference, calling on The Huffington Post (the first-ever online-only publication to ask a question in an official White House press conference), leaving many in the room nervous and quizzical – whom would he call upon?

Obama answered questions on everything from the economic crisis and its effects on homeless children to the current violence in Mexico. However, the talk of the town since the conference has centered on a question from Ed Henry of CNN regarding AIG.

“You spoke again at the top about your anger about AIG. You’ve been saying that for days now. But why is it that it seems Andrew Cuomo seems to be in New York getting more actual action on it? And when you and Secretary Geithner first learned about this 10 days, two weeks ago, you didn’t go public immediately with that outrage – you waited a few days, and then you went public after you realized Secretary Geithner really had no legal avenue to stop it,” Henry said.

Obama responded at length regarding a second part of Henry’s question concerning the president’s new budget and the national debt. Henry then asked a follow-up reiterating his concerns about the length of time between the AIG bonus announcement and Obama’s reaction.

“It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak, you know?” Obama said.

Laughter followed, but many reporters said after the briefing that Obama was dodging the question.

After the 13th question of the evening was answered, Obama said “thank you” and jogged out of the room as quickly as he had entered. About six reporters then took to the stage and prepared to give their analyses live while everyone else filtered out of the room, trying not to stand between the correspondents and their cameras.

Emmanuel was waiting in the briefing room as reporters filed back in, where he gave a quick interview to Larry King on CNN via satellite and, waving off a group of reporters who swarmed around him the second he went off camera, left through a back door.

Within 30 minutes nearly every reporter had left the White House grounds to get his or her story out, or just to rest after a long day, leaving a few stragglers behind, furiously typing up their stories in the faded yellow light of the briefing room.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.