Mind Your Manners at the White House

As a cub reporter in the White House press room for the first time, I was awestruck by the opportunity to work alongside journalists like Bob Schieffer of CBS, Sam Donaldson of ABC and Andrea Mitchell of NBC. I was even more impressed when those seasoned veterans took time to show a newcomer around and explain some of the traditions of the place.

Much has changed since the Reagan administration, and I wasn’t aware of any formal “rules” then or now. However, there’s a certain etiquette that’s expected when numerous journalists are competing for a newsmaker’s limited time and access. Certainly when that newsmaker is the president of the United States. Any president.

It was an established tradition that the first question usually went to the competing wire services, AP or UPI. For decades, that meant any president would have to tangle with the feisty Helen Thomas of UPI. Print outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post ranked high in the pecking order, along with the correspondents from the three TV networks. Few reporters have peppered presidents with tough questions as gleefully as Sam Donaldson. In Reagan’s era, some news managers were concerned about reporters getting too tough on a popular chief executive. Critics thought this allowed Reagan to get off easy as the “teflon” president.

Fast forward to the latest confrontation between CNN’s Jim Acosta and President Trump. While Acosta may get a nightly pat on the back from the anti-Trumpers who fill CNN’s ubiquitous panel, he seems fairly dismissive of the fact that there’s an entire roomful of journalists from all over the world who are politely waiting their turn. By tradition, each reporter gets a question and a followup. And then it’s someone else’s turn. If the newsmaker ducks a big question and the followup, the next reporters called on can choose to keep pounding away until there’s a real answer.

Video of the moment when Acosta shoos away the White House intern whose job is to pass around the microphone has been scrutinized for whether or not he actually created a #MeToo moment by putting his hands on the young woman. For me, the bigger issue is the other journalists who can be seen waving their arms in the background as they politely waited to be called on.

Terry played a White House correspondent in the movie “American Daughter” and advised on the depiction of the briefing room.

Tough questions are welcome. Making everyone else’s tough questions take a back seat while you jump from topic to topic,  opine about the nature of the immigrant caravan approaching the US border, and refuse to relinquish the microphone to give someone else a chance to do their job? Well, that is something else. Acosta’s press credential was revoked. While news organizations reflexively don’t like it when a reporter is banned from anywhere, they now find themselves in a position of defending someone who could most kindly be described as “impolite.” Sadly, this behavior may become the new normal as Mr. Trump fires back, rather than cooly responding with a “no comment” and moving on. Where are the seasoned journalists who will explain to the newcomers that it’s possible to ask a tough question in a civilized way?

It’s not just the White House. There’s a certain etiquette to be followed in press conferences just about anywhere. When I was reporting for WCBS in New York City in the 90s, reporters would joke that there were always two news conferences: one for the venerable Gabe Pressman and one for everybody else. It was a measure of the respect the veteran WNBC newsman commanded in the twilight of his career that we’d all wait for Gabe to speak his mind. Sorry, Jim Acosta. You’re no Gabe Pressman.

Everyone else? One question. One followup. Sit down.

Terry covered Washington DC for the NBC-owned stations in the mid 1980s and has provided talent coaching for capital-based correspondents.