WASHINGTON—The White House press corps said goodbye to its cramped, dingy, coffee-stained briefing room Wednesday.
A nine-month exile from the executive mansion is scheduled as the room, made famous by real-life news events and fictional shows like "West Wing," undergoes a much-needed renovation.
When reporters return from their temporary quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue, they'll find new digs with new technology, likely including a high-tech "video wall" behind the podium. That could transform the daily press briefing into a more video-friendly event—and it could also enable the Bush administration to take its message directly to the people, circumventing the journalists sitting in the remodeled room.
"So this is like the end of an old era," President Bush told a packed, overheated and under-air conditioned briefing room crowd Wednesday. "And let me just say, we felt your pain."
Some analysts believe that the new room—with its proposed video wall—is the administration's latest attempt to wrest control of news management from the media.
"There is a skirmish between the president and journalists over who controls the news agenda," said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent research institute. "These new toys will aid the administration in setting the agenda by giving them more time, more video evidence, and a larger profile."
White House officials say they have no ulterior motive in remodeling the briefing room other than to clean the place up, bring it up to code, improve the air conditioning and wiring, and usher in 21st century technology badly needed in an increasingly fast information age.
"For heaven's sake, we want to get the seats out, the wiring safe and the carpet clean to make the briefing room safe and effective," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, a telegenic former Fox News commentator adept at TV presentation. "The notion that we're going around the press is inaccurate."
Whatever the case, the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, a submarine-tight, 47-seat closet, is in for major changes. The room is named in honor of President Ronald Reagan's first press secretary, who was shot and severely injured during the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life.
It will be stripped of its badly stained blue carpet. Its stiff, cramped blue seats will be removed, along with miles of wires that flow beneath the floor and serve the major television, radio and print-media outlets.
The wires literally fill a swimming pool; beneath the floor installed in 1970 is what used to be a pool used by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
For the remodeled facility, White House officials are weighing the cost of installing a large video wall like the one on CNN's daily "Situation Room" newscast. It could display video, charts and graphs to help the White House present its case.
That could transform the daily briefing into more of a made-for-TV presentation that resembles a newscast, but one produced by the White House, not the independent media, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"The equivalent of press releases could go out without interruption or analysis." Thompson said. "We have evidence that they are thinking along that line—video news releases."
The Bush administration got into ethical trouble in 2004 over use of video news releases—or VNRs—that were produced by the Department of Health and Human Services and made their way onto some local TV newscasts. The Government Accountability Office deemed the VNRs illegal "covert propaganda."
White House efforts to influence the news surfaced again last year when it was revealed that the Department of Education had paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote administration policy.
While some experts warn of potential White House abuse of new media technology, some past press secretaries from both parties said that modernization of the briefing room is necessary and long overdue.
Several former press secretaries—including James S. Brady, Ronald Reagan's press secretary, for whom the room is named—joined President Bush in bidding farewell Wednesday to a room that took a bullet from a Pennsylvania Avenue gunman in the 1990s and where Alexander Haig proclaimed himself in charge of the government following the Reagan assassination attempt.
"I can't think of a group more resistant to change than the press corps, and a group that likes to make the press more uncomfortable that the White House, so this is perfect," said Joe Lockhart, one of President Clinton's press secretaries.
Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to the first president Bush, believes all the journalistic hand wringing is pointless.
"It's classic that the press corps is afraid of new technology," he said. "You can't tell me that the mighty White House press corps is afraid of a big television screen."
Bush said he wants reporters to be comfortable in the new briefing room. But not too comfortable.
"It looks a little crowded in here. . . . You want to double the size?" he said. "Forget it."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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