The "James Brady Press Briefing Room" a half hour before the morning gaggle. Credit: Wikipedia (CC2.5)

Many Americans who pay any attention to politics have probably wondered, “What the heck is a gaggle?” since White House Spokesman Sean Spicer on Friday deliberately excluded several news organizations from a pen-and-pad briefing that abruptly took the place of the previously scheduled televised daily briefing.

The gaggle kerfuffle proceeded to dominate headlines and air time for much of Friday as the latest example of the increasing contempt with which the Trump administration holds CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, Buzzfeed, the BBC, The Guardian, some of which he has previously dubbed “fake news” and “enemies of the people.”

At the same time, the White House went out of its way to include conservative outlets Breitbart, One America News, and The Washington Times in the gaggle, which was also attended by a variety of other mainstream publications that haven’t (yet?) attracted the president’s ire for tone and tenor of their coverage. A few news organizations including the Associated Press boycotted the briefing in solidarity with the excluded journalists.

The blowback was swift. New York Times editor Dean Baquet called the hand-picked briefing audience unprecedented. The National Press Club – the only venue willing to host the “Deploraball” on Inauguration weekend — called the action “unconstitutional censorship.” But Spicer defended his decision, saying the White House would continue to “aggressively push back” on “false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts” he alleges the news organizations in question have perpetrated.

Briefings, Gaggles and Pools

There’s a lot to unpack here, but understanding the different types of press availabilities at the White House (and for that matter, most of official Washington) is a critical first step.

Most people have watched the press secretary’s daily briefing. That is typically held in the afternoon around 2 p.m. and has been televised live on a more or less routine basis since the Clinton administration, usually on cable news/CSPAN. That press briefing has become highly ritualized with reporters peacocking and press secretaries reciting talking points. Until this year, they rarely made news of their own accord. More to the point, nearly anyone claiming to be a journalist can attend the briefing by getting a daily pass approved by the Secret Service; the briefing famously attracts interesting characters of all ideological persuasions.

The gaggle is different. Typically, it is off-camera and also called a “pen-and-pad” although reporters usually record it for note-taking purposes. A gaggle can occur anywhere – the press secretary almost always holds one with pool reporters on Air Force One before arriving at a destination, for example.

During the Clinton and Bush administrations, there were also daily gaggles held in the morning before the televised briefing (I am told the Obama administration did away with this practice). These sessions typically are held inside the press secretary’s office, which is located behind the briefing room, down the hall from the Oval Office. They served as an opportunity for reporters to get a first glimpse of the day from the press secretary. But they also gave the press secretary an early indicator of what stories reporters are chasing. Good press secretaries did two things with this information – they gave information and answers to the reporters for their early stories and began refining their talking points for the televised briefing later.

Among other types of groupings, there are two types of “pools.” The first is formed when space is limited, with pool reporters obliged to share all information from whatever event they cover with the entire press corps. The second is the traveling pool, which limited to the number of seats on Air Force One and includes the wire services, photographers and rotating television, magazine, radioo and newspaper representatives. Being a permanent member of this pool requires extensive financial resources as the government bills the news organizations proportionately for air travel and other costs.

Finally, there are “backgrounders” and other less formal press availabilities with the president and senior aides. Participating in these events is by invitation and inherently selective – oftentimes journalists don’t find out they were excluded until after the fact. No fuss is made because there is no expectation, implicitly or explicitly, of collective access, like there is for press briefing or daily gaggle.

What to Make of it All

Friday’s controversy erupted in part because of confusion and differing interpretations over these structures. Spicer’s availability originally was scheduled as a briefing. Then it was abruptly called a gaggle. Spicer later defended it as an “expanded pool.” Former White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer, alluding the “backgrounder” category of grouping, accused the press of “hyperventilating” because previous presidents, including Obama, have often been selective about which members of the press to engage.

The difference here is the retaliatory nature of the exclusion. It’s true that while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, it does not guarantee access to the president or his spokesman, however punitively excluding journalists working in a public building funded by taxpayers is a slippery slope. Spicer himself in December acknowledged that barring access is “something a dictator does.”

There is also the fact that this is just the latest in a sustained attack by Trump that appears aimed at delegitimizing established news organizations that are most aggressively investigating his policies and activities while simultaneously attempting to legitimize outlets viewed as sycophantic and don’t subscribe to professional journalism standards codified by the Society for Professional Journalists and the National Press Club.

Ultimately, the gaggle kerfuffle is a distraction and red herring. For Trump, it rallies his base (which isn’t the same thing as the conservative base — many staunch conservatives are deeply concerned about the treatment of the press as well). More importantly, it has news organizations navel gazing about how they’re being treated. The number of TV hours, column inches and journalism resources to this incident comes at the expense of deeper coverage/investigation of other important developments.

The biggest is the revelation that White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus asked the FBI to “push back” against reports that Trump aides had extensive contacts with Russian intelligence officials (news of which catalyzed the exclusion from the gaggle in the first place.). But it can be argued other developments merited more coverage, including sussing out the administration’s response to North Korea’s willingness to use chemical weapons like VX in a crowded airport for an assassination and the ongoing developments with Trump’s immigration policies.

Instead, these stories are being pushed off the proverbial front page by journalists forced to cover themselves, something that in and of itself violates a long-standing tenet of the trade.

Now that Trump has sought to exclude some press from his press secretary’s briefings, his next step will be to exclude himself: He announced late Saturday that he won’t attend the White House Correspondents Dinner

Ryan Donmoyer was a White House reporter from 2001-2005 for Bloomberg News.

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