Behind the Trump administration’s mysterious Skype seat selection
The White House has started the revolving carousel of Skype seats during the press briefing
While the early weeks of the Trump administration have been marked by a stormy relationship with the media, the White House press office has managed to institute at least one promising initiative.
The office has started using "Skype seats" during press briefings, allowing reporters from outlets that are at least 50 miles away from Washington D.C., to sit in on the briefings and ask questions of Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
On the surface, there’s lots to like about offering reporters from outside the Washington circle a chance to throw their voices into the mix, asking questions that may get overlooked by the scandal du jour and are of importance to their audiences.
But there is a major hang-up with the new tech roll-out: a lack of transparency around the process that is used to select reporters for the Skype seats.
Getting a seat
If you’re an outlet or reporter hoping to gain access to one of the Skype seats, you can try reaching out to the White House press office, but there’s no clear application process. Instead, according to the participants we’ve talked to, it’s the White House who’s doing much of the choosing.
Of the first 15 reporters to ask questions from the Skype seats in press briefings between Feb. 1 and Feb. 22, 2017, we spoke to six who were either contacted by deputy members of the White House press office or given a seat after reaching out to the press office, sometimes for an unrelated interview.
John Huck, from Las Vegas’s local Fox affiliate KVVU, received an email from a member of the press office that suggested he was chosen from a database stemming from his coverage of primary debates in Nevada. "It just came out of the blue, really. We had not reached out to the White House to see if we could get a seat," he said.
Lars Larson, a conservative radio host from Oregon, said the White House press team gave his show a call about participating in the Skype seats and he jumped at the chance. Larson noted his show has had an "open channel" with Trump’s team thanks to previous interviews with members of the team, including multiple chats with Trump.
And Kim Kalunian, of Providence, Rhode Island’s local CBS affiliate WPRI, interviewed Sean Spicer, who spent much of his life in Rhode Island, in December 2016, ahead of the inauguration and was called by White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters inviting her to ask one of the first questions from a Skype seat because of those "home" state ties.
The White House press office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about the secret process or whether it will be opened up in the future.
The issue of transparency
Who is being picked isn’t as big a concern as how they’re being picked, said Ellen Shearer, head of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. "Even of the reporters who are at the daily, Sean Spicer decides who he will call on, so in that sense, they control who gets to ask the questions and they always have."
The press secretary picking reporters is not new to the Trump administration, of course. It has been standard practice for quite some time. But for those reporters, the established credentialing process is public while, at this point, there’s no rhyme or reason as to how the White House chooses the Skype participants.
"I think the lack of transparency in how they’re selecting those who get to ask the question is troubling," Shearer adds, "particularly given the president’s comments about the press and Steve Bannon’s comments about the press."
Indeed, Trump’s administration has antagonized the press, whether it’s denying access to certain organizations, calling only on conservative outlets, or calling mainstream media outlets "fake news" and the "enemy of the American people."
Brendan Fitzgerald, associate editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, mentioned the less-than cordial relationship between the media and the Trump administration as a reason that they should want to be more transparent.
"When you have a White House administration that offers such a critical perspective on the media, it might be hard for voters across the country to know which news sources they ought to trust, and why."
"When you have a White House administration that offers its critical perspective on the media, it might do well for that same administration to offer some comment as to why certain people join the press briefings via Skype," he said, "It might also reward the American people to know a bit about what that process looks like."
Fitzgerald, who took a deep look at the first round of Skype seats for CJR, also noted that a lack of transparency could make the viewing public more skeptical towards the media outlets asking the Skype questions.
"I think making the Skype seat application an open process would be more transparent. When you have a White House administration that offers such a critical perspective on the media, it might be hard for voters across the country to know which news sources they ought to trust, and why.
"And when the process for bringing a new, arguably more diverse group of reporters into the briefing room is opaque," he continued, "then anyone watching those briefings might watch them with great skepticism."
Shearer shared the same sentiment, saying, "I think it would make a lot of sense for them to have people apply in a way that would list everybody who has asked to be Skyped in. That way, we’d be able to see who’s asked and who’s been allowed in." This would make it easier to see which outlets have been called on and which have been ignored, just like in the actual press briefing room.
Another problem with the Skype seats is the inability to ask a follow-up question or a chance to push back on a spokesperson’s answer. Indeed, some of Spicer’s answers have been lackluster but the reporter is cut off before they get a chance to push for a better answer.
WPRI’s Kalunian said, "It’s a little harder when you’re there via Skype and not actually sitting in that room to be able to say ‘But-but-but you’re not really answering my question.’ If they could allow for a follow-up from the Skype reporters, it’d be even more valuable."
Fitzgerald agreed, "If there’s no ability to follow-up, what do we learn from that exchange?"
The diversity of voices
Still, despite issues with transparency and accountability, the program has so far been successful in regards to covering a variety of topics and opening up the diversity of voices in the briefings. Out of the 15 questions asked via Skype, nine have come from reporters for television stations (all network affiliates), four from radio hosts, one from a print publication, and one from an online source.
Image: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable
There’s no apparent geographical favoritism, either, as five questions have come from states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and seven questions have come from states Trump won. Interestingly, the only two states that have been represented multiple times so far are the key swing states of Ohio (three) and Florida (two).
Most of the questions have been of a quality deserving of the press briefing setting, addressing national issues from a local perspective. Immigration has been the favorite topic so far with five questions from the Skype seats pertaining to immigration or sanctuary city issues.
Image: Bob Al-Green/Mashable
Other topics have included the economy, coal, federal regulations, the opioid epidemic, and relations with Cuba, which are all relevant news topics that resonate with viewers around the country.
It’s also been a success in the eyes of the participants we spoke to, as it has enabled them to get answers from the White House on major issues that resonate with their own local audiences that may not be at the forefront of the D.C. press corp’s minds.
"I think it’s a good concept," said Jeff Jobe, owner of six county newspapers in Kentucky and the lone Skype questioner from a print outlet so far. "I think to continually focus on the same two or three stories every week is an injustice to the people who want to know what’s going on."
Lars Larson, the conservative talk radio host, believes both sides of the political aisle deserve air time and that an outsider’s point of view can circumvent the press corp’s bubble.
"If you simply get people from outside [Washington D.C] and those people use that opportunity not to just ask another question on Obamacare," Larson said. "If you get somebody from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Denver or Houston, they are likely to ask a question that shows a point of view outside that beltway mentality."
Having a direct line to the White House is also a new advantage for many outlets, according to Jackie Nespral, of Miami’s NBC 6, "It was a great experience because to give an opportunity to a local reporter to ask a question of the spokesperson — you’re essentially getting the word from the administration."
Handling the softball
But who gets that direct line is still the primary issue. Although the questions have so far been diverse, there’s still the threat that handpicking reporters could lead to softball questions and one Skype seat incident has already demonstrated that issue.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was criticized when, in the midst of questions about Gen. Michael Flynn’s resignation, he took a Skype question on regulation rollbacks from Jason Stevens, of the Federalist Papers website that featured some editorializing from Stevens.
You can watch it here:
If a White House that complains of media bias then fields an explicitly biased question from an outlet it hand-picked, with no accounting for why that outlet was picked, the entire point of the press briefings is undermined. It’s no longer an issue of the free press but, rather, propaganda.
Stacking the deck with Skype seats in this manner is another way to retain control of the media’s access and undermines the progress the White House has made through the program. It’s going to take responsibility and transparency to ensure that the Skype seats continue to be a productive experience.
Whether this administration is up to the task of improving the experience becomes harder to guess the longer they stay silent on the process. And shrouding the selection process in secrecy — a secrecy that Medill’s Shearer calls "needless" — only underscores the administration’s nefarious dealings with the media and its ongoing attempts to destabilize the press’s credibility by manipulating the norms and condition under which the two sides usually operate.
If their intentions are good, even if with more pro-Trump voices in the room, then shed light on the process. Otherwise, an initiative that’s meant to increase that diversity of voices will bring more skepticism, eroding any goodwill the whole thing was meant to deliver in the first place.