Tuesday, February 10, 2009

After the first black president completed his first prime-time press conference, the black press was red hot.

“We were window dressing,” said Hazel Edney, a reporter with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, also known as the Black Press of America. “We were nothing more than window dressing.”

As the media filed into the stately White House East Room on Monday night, the reporter was shocked to find herself in the front row. Alongside her were the top news agencies, Associated Press, Reuters; also up front, 86-year-old Helen Thomas, who started covering presidents 50 years ago.

Alongside the most prominent journalists in America was Tiffany Cross from Black Entertainment Television. Like Miss Edney, she didn’t know why she was in first-class while all the television networks - every single one - was exiled to the steerage compartment.

“I really don’t know why I’m up here,” Miss Cross said with a shy smile.

While most on the front row got to pose a question to President Obama, the two reporters from the black press did not. Nor did any other black-press reporter, for that matter.

“This was like Reagan, when he’d put all the blacks up front,” said another prominent but visibly peeved black-press reporter who asked to remain anonymous. “He oughta’ be ashamed.”

The new seating arrangement miffed a lot of reporters. In years past, the front row, usually nine or 10 seats, was peopled with the three main wires, the five big networks, Miss Thomas and, sometimes, a big newspaper, like the New York Times or USA Today.

While the two wires were up front, Bloomberg News, which travels in every tight pool alongside AP and Reuters, was stationed in the second row. Of the networks, only CBS made that row. All but one of the others - ABC, CNN and NBC were in the third (while Fox News’ Major Garrett was dispatched to the fourth row, far to the right of the presidential podium).

Seated in that prime front row, though, were some newcomers. Along with reporters from NNPA and BET were Sam Stein of the archly liberal Huffington Post and Ed Schultz, star of the “Ed Schultz Radio Show,” an unabashedly liberal talk-show host, who boasts 3 million listeners dubbed “Ed Heads.”

Asked how he garnered the piece of prime real estate, Mr. Schultz said with a shrug: “I don’t know. They told me it was a random thing.”

“But it’s not bad being up front,” said Mr. Schultz, whose book “Straight Talk From the Heartland,” is touted on his Web site as having “laid a road map for the progressive wave that’s sweeping America.”

Although the packed East Room held 166 seats - with more than 100 others standing around the perimeter - two of the nine front-and-center seats were empty throughout the hour-long press conference. For some reason, no reporter from el Nuevo Dia, which Wikipedia says is “a newspaper written in Spanish based in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and distributed daily throughout Puerto Rico and some parts of the mainland United States,” bothered to take their seat next to Miss Thomas.

Salem Radio, a conservative radio station that is also part of the tight pool with the big wire services, also checked in and then never took their seat.

None of it mattered, though, because Mr. Obama called reporters from a list on the podium, and reporters buzzed afterward about how he didn’t seem to know a single reporter he called on - at least in the front row.

“And let me go to Jennifer Loven at AP,” the president said, looking to his left, and then back a row or two before finding the AP reporter front and center, about eight feet from the podium. “Ah, there you are.”

“Caren Bohan of Reuters?” he said after finishing a long economics tutorial. He looked left and right before finding the red-headed reporter - right next to Miss Loven.

“All right. Chuck Todd. Where’s Chuck?” Mr. Obama said before finding the goateed reporter in the third row. “Ed Henry. Where’s Ed? CNN. There he is,” he said shortly after Mr. Henry stood up. “Major Garrett. Where is Major?” he said before finding the reporter back in the cheap seats.

While Mr. Obama didn’t call on Mr. Schultz in the front row, he did skip giant national newspapers like USA Today and The Wall Street Journal in favor of the Huffington Post, which didn’t disappoint.

“Sam Stein, Huffington Post. Where’s Sam?”

“Right here.”

“There. Go ahead.”

“Today, Senator Patrick Leahy announced that he wants to set up a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration. He said that before you turn the page, you have to read - read the page first. Do you agree with such a proposal? And are you willing to rule out right here and now any prosecution of Bush administration officials?”

The first post-partisan president paused, then answered. “My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen.”

The president ticked through all the usual suspects, calling on the three wires and all five networks before hitting The Washington Post and New York Times, both of whom sent black reporters. The only other question from outside the box was from NPR.

“Mara Liasson?” the president said as he scanned the crowd.

Joseph Curl can be contacted at jcurl@washington times.com.

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