Reporters Scramble for White House’s Prize Perch

Helen Thomas’s blue-padded seat in the front row of the White House briefing room has barely cooled, but her former colleagues in the press are already climbing over each other to fill it.

Ms. Thomas’s abrupt retirement in the wake of controversial remarks has touched off a scramble for the prime news real estate she has occupied since the Reagan administration. News organizations with grand ambitions are trying to shove their way into the former doyenne’s reserved seat, while smaller outlets lobby for any chair that such a move might leave empty. The smallest media, meantime, are just trying to get somewhere–anywhere–to sit down during press conferences.

“If you don’t start lobbying now to move, it could be years and years before you get another opportunity,” said Cheryl Bolen, who has a nosebleed, seventh-row seat as a correspondent for BNA’s Daily Report for Executives. She launched her lobbying campaign within hours of Ms. Thomas’s departure on Monday.

Ms. Bolen buttonholed board members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which assigns seats that set the briefing-room pecking order. She argued that she consistently attended administration briefings and deserved a better position.

Since Ms. Bolen started on the White House beat in October, not once has White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called on her when she raised her hand from her seat.

Meantime, Ana Marie Cox, GQ’s gossipy blogger, launched her own campaign for the Thomas seat on Twitter, with a solemn promise that if she is chosen, she will assume the position without wearing any pants. She later clarified that she would be wearing a dress, “as befits a lady.”

There are 49 press seats in the briefing room–seven rows of seven theater-style seats, each with a brass plaque identifying the outlet that occupies it. Mr. Gibbs tends to call first on the wire services and television networks in the front row, often allowing them to ask multiple questions in a single briefing. Then he will move on to the newspaper grandees in the second row, and finally, if there is time left, to the mass-media masses farther back.

“If you’re someone whose journalism depends on asking questions, you want to get up close,” said Washington Examiner reporter Julie Mason, a board member of the correspondents group. She said she was “besieged” by colleagues who wanted to move up a row or two.

Rumors of Ms. Thomas’s retirement have been circulating for years–she is 89 years old–and seat envy “has been hovering over the briefing room like a malodorous vapor,” said Ms. Mason, whose own chair is in the last row. The end came suddenly on Monday, with Ms. Thomas retiring under fire from Hearst Newspapers after saying Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to Germany, Poland and the U.S.

The correspondents group plans to take on the seating issue next month, when new board members take office. The current board is meeting Thursday to discuss the propriety of allowing opinion columnists to occupy the coveted seats. Mr. Gibbs declined to enter the fray Tuesday.

The main contenders for Ms. Thomas’s seat–dead center in the front row–are Bloomberg, the fast-growing financial news outlet, and Fox News Channel, whose parent, News Corp., also owns The Wall Street Journal, which has a second-row seat.

CNN reporter Ed Henry, a board member of the correspondents group, said he backs Fox. “When CNN bid for the front row in 2007, Fox could have challenged it and had a knock-down, drag-out fight like the one we might have this time. But they did the gentlemanly thing and said CNN had more seniority. I’ve got to honor that commitment.”

Both Fox News Channel and Bloomberg declined to comment.

The press room, in the White House West Wing, started out as a swimming pool in the 1930s. President Richard Nixon filled in the pool and put a theater over it for the press. But until the Reagan years, the arrangement was an informal collection of couches and chairs, said Larry McQuillan, a retired White House reporter. When it was remodeled during the Reagan administration, Press Secretary Larry Speakes assigned the seats. From right to left when viewed from the podium, NBC, the Associated Press, CBS, United Press International, ABC and Reuters got the first row.

In 2007, the White House renovated again, adding new, theater-like seats and an additional chair to each row.

Ms. Thomas, who started covering the White House during the John F. Kennedy administration, held the UPI seat until she quit the news service in 2000. But she didn’t move after landing a position with Hearst Newspapers, and nobody pushed her.

The correspondents group discussed moving her under George W. Bush, but her aggressive questioning of his press secretaries made board members worry displacing her would look like a political sop to the president. So there she sat until now.

The correspondents group plans to take on the seating issue next month, when new board members take office. The current board is meeting Thursday to discuss the propriety of allowing opinion columnists to occupy the coveted seats. Mr. Gibbs declined to enter the fray Tuesday.

“It’s like musical chairs in elementary school,” said Ed Chen, a Bloomberg reporter who is the departing association president, “except it has the cutthroat viciousness of a snake pit.”

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