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Thursday, September 14, 2006

ABC News: Press On-Camera in White House

Reporters Surprised to See Cameras Rolling at the 'Gaggle'

Sept. 12, 2006 - You'd think most TV reporters would be thrilled to know a camera is pointing in their direction. But a bevy of White House correspondents got bent out of shape in this morning's White House briefing, known as the gaggle, when they discovered the White House had a camera trained on the reporters during what has always been a no-cameras-allowed event.

It was CBS's Bill Plante who first drew attention to the briefing-room cam. Tony Snow was close to wrapping up when Plante, seated in the front row, began to smile and wave at the ceiling above Tony Snow's left shoulder. That sort of thing doesn't usually happen during a White House gaggle, so Snow stopped to inquire why and at what/whom Plante was waving.

"At that camera!!!" said an animated Plante pointing at a video camera affixed to the ceiling and apparently rolling on reporters in the gaggle. Plante asked Snow who was watching the camera, " Karl?! Josh?!" referring to Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

Snow turned and looked -- the whole press corps looked -- and with obvious surprise said he didn't realize that camera was there. Amused, Snow pointed to John Gizzi of Human Events and announced (roughly), "Camera, roll on Gizzi!" Sure enough, the ceiling-mounted camera swiveled around and took aim at the veteran White House reporter. That triggered a lot of laughter and a few jokes about White House record keepers monitoring the press.

Turns out, the jokers weren't exactly wrong. "Read More" click link below


According to the White House press office, there have been two White House cameras in the briefing room ever since President Bush took office. One is fixed on the briefer at the podium and the other is pointed at the reporters. But there's been a change. When the press recently moved into the new temporary briefing room at the White House Conference Center, the reporter cam was upgraded so it now moves. That's what caught Plante's eye.

Says the always wry Plante, "Today, while distracted or bored, I was watching it move from questioner to questioner. When I saw it looking in my general direction, I waved. Doesn't everyone when they see a camera? I thought about asking, "Is this gonna be on TV?" but checked the impulse."

Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino explains that the cameras are operated by the White House TV/ White House Communications Agency and provide an internal feed that lets White House staff watch on-the-record briefings on an in-house channel. White House cameras also roll on events that do not involve reporters, including ceremonies and bill signings on the lawn and in the East Room. But it's the gaggle camera that has some reporters asking questions, since the gaggle (the morning briefing) is supposed to be an off-camera event. It's a strictly enforced policy: Reporters are not allowed to roll video because the gathering is a casual question-and-answer session.

Now some reporters are asking if the White House has the red light on, why can't the press? Says CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoeller, "If the White House can videotape the morning gaggles, the press ought to be able to do the same thing." One longtime Washington journalist asks, "Since we almost always tell White House officials when we put them on camera, shouldn't they make a point of telling reporters the same thing?" And another says, "It makes you wonder why the staff would need to see the questioner."

ABC's Ann Compton explains this is not the first White House to keep records of every briefing: "We raised questions and unhappiness with the Clinton administration when the first simple video camera appeared mounted in the ceiling years ago." And she points out, "There have always been microphones in the ceiling that carry the audio back to offices in the West Wing." In fact, ABC's John Yang recalls a time before the briefings were televised when President George H.W. Bush's Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was handed a slip of paper during a briefing: The President had been listening to the audio feed and wanted Fitzwater to correct something he'd said.

Even Plante, who first called attention to the swiveling camera, says, "It's no big deal." But what really seems to bother reporters is the possibility that these cameras could be turned on when reporters are unaware. Says one senior White House correspondent, "I guess I was a little surprised to see a remote camera in there and I hope it's used only for viewing the gaggle and briefing and not a surveillance device of the Secret Service." Compton agrees, "My concern is not the White House listening to its own press secretary, but a surveillance capability to watch and listen to the press while we work."

The White House insists it does not monitor the press room in between briefings. (The image of the camera crews reading the papers in the empty briefing room chairs might not be a big draw.) But the White House does keep tapes of every on-camera briefing. It's part of the record and, as one journalist points out, could possibly fall under the Freedom of Information Act.

At the very least, the new swiveling reporter cam means TV correspondents will no doubt start putting on their makeup before the gaggle, all to prepare for their close-ups, and for Josh and Karl.

Copyright © 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures
ABC News: Press On-Camera in White House


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