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W.H. press corps gaggle returns, vanishes

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The White House's brief experiment with reviving an informal daily session of give-and-take with reporters appears to have vanished as quickly and quietly as it began.

Known as the gaggle, the White House press corps tradition that was canceled under the George W. Bush administration made a surprising reappearance over the summer, as President Obama's press advisers tried to gain firmer control over each day's news during an extraordinarily busy period.

But those on-the-record, off-camera sessions between the press secretary and reporters have ceased again.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says it's premature to announce their demise - they may return later this week.

The gaggle has traditionally been a welcome chance for less-formal interactions between the White House and the reporters who cover the president. Both sides saw benefits. Reporters got an early sense of the White House message for the day, and the administration got a sense of what stories the press was working on.

But press secretary Dana Perino ended the gaggle toward the end of the President Bush's second term, saying it was repetitive to hold what amounted to two briefings a day. The new administration press team made no move to revive the gaggle in Mr. Obama's first six months in office.

That made it a surprise when, on July 24, deputy press secretary Bill Burton sent out an early morning e-mail to reporters who regularly cover the administration, notifying them of a "morning meeting" in Mr. Gibbs' office.

The gaggles continued for much of August, giving reporters a more casual setting to parry with Mr. Gibbs for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Mr. Gibbs held his last gaggle in early September. There was no announcement ending the practice. He simply stopped doing them, leaving the midday session under the hot lights of live TV as the sole opportunity give-and-take with reporters.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gibbs said he expected to bring the gaggle back this week, but did not want to talk about why he began the experiment only to put it on the shelf for a month.

One clue as to why the Obama White House suspended the gaggle was the rising tension between the press shop and foreign news outlets - many of them reporting for Asian market - that were not invited by the White House but showed up anyway.

As the number of reporters in Mr. Gibbs' office swelled, the White House began cracking down on news outlets that sent more than one reporter. Finally, instead of moving the gaggle to the more formal briefing room, the Gibbs press shop let the practice peter out.

Foreign press outlets say they are on the lookout to make sure there is not a new round of gaggles designed to shut them out.

It's unclear when the gaggle started. Some veteran White House reporters say it was during the Reagan administration when veteran reporter Helen Thomas began staking out the press secretary's office early in the morning to get a nugget from press secretary Larry Speakes, prompting other reporters to follow suit.

"To disperse the crowd in front of his office every morning, Speakes decided to hold a 'gaggle' in his office each morning after senior staff [meetings] and take questions on overnight developments," recalled Mark Knoller, a veteran CBS Radio reporter who has covered the White House for more than 25 years.

But Ann Compton, an ABC News reporter who has covered the White House since 1974, said she remembers going into press secretary Ron Nessen's office for gaggles during the Ford administration.

Mr. Nessen, now at the Brookings Institution, said he would hold an informal briefing in his office in the late afternoon to update reporters trying to meet evening deadlines. The formal briefing was at that time in midmorning.

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