This summer has been one of comfortable rhythms. I wake up each morning to an alert telling me my daily plans, usually a press briefing or some presidential remarks. Once it’s time, I drag myself to my desk and click over to the White House livestream and prepare myself to cover White House Press Briefing for The Pavlovic Today, an independent news organization I am interning for at a political news desk.
There’s something fascinating about the way the press briefings work. Press secretary Jen Psaki stands at the head of the room, swarmed by reporters, dodging every third question.
I’ve been covering the press briefings for months now. At this point it’s second nature to absorb the key points and structure them into an article at breakneck speed. With that consistency comes a bit of ease during the actual briefing, though.
Lately, I’ve caught myself observing the reporters just as much as Psaki. What questions are they asking, and how do they ask them? Are there tensions between publications? How does it feel to be in that room?
I did not expect I would get to find out so soon.
Last week, I found myself in Washington, DC at the home of a close friend. I told Editor in Chief , Ksenija Pavlovic Mcateer, a DC resident, that I am in town, wondering if we could meet. Unfortunately, she was in Europe already. But she had a better offer: to go to the White House to cover the press briefing.
It seemed unlikely, but my skepticism vanished when my editor confirmed that I was cleared to go to the White House the next day.
The morning of the press briefing, I was a nervous mess. I’m not a morning person, but I woke up early to talk details with my editor. The close friend I was visiting, ever an angel, brought me iced coffee to make sure I was sufficiently caffeinated for the day.
My editor listed out a seemingly endless array of details to remember about how to get in, what to do once I got in, and how to be as prepared as possible.
At 10: 30 am on the dot, I sucked down the rest of my iced coffee and hopped on a scooter to face the enthralling journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I got there in no time thanks to my friend’s escort and the copious instructions from my editor.
The entry process through security checkpoints was smooth sailing. Although the gates and secret service agents appeared intimidating, they were actually pretty friendly. It was obvious to them that it was my first time on campus.
Protests raged to my right as I walked through the gates , throngs of people waving Cuba flags and chanting “Vida y Patria!”. The White House stood stoic to my left, an eerie and imposing building.
Eventually I made it into the James Brady Press Briefing Room. The most televised White House room I would see on my screen every day was empty, a side effect of being fashionably early to a press briefing.
The room was small, smaller than I expected. Off to the side sat booths for different publications. The back of the room was populated by cameramen and their equipment.
Eventually, journalists started to filter in from a different event, one I quickly gathered was outdoors. The reporters in tailored suits and curated outfits were drenched in sweat. Some fanned themselves with their hands. One veteran reporter took off his jacket to “dry out” before the briefing.
Nobody made a move to talk to me, but I was in awe simply watching the reporters interact. Different cliques of people would form, all from different publications. Some kept to themselves and churned away at their laptops. Veteran journalists surveyed the room and would chat with anyone they recognize.
As people poured in to pack the seats, I eavesdropped on conversations. “I’m diametrically opposed to salad,” one person joked. Another told the story of his recent bout of heat exhaustion. Inside the White House Briefing Room, it felt like I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to, the curtain lifted to show the humanity behind the media class.
I realized at that point how much I stood out, dressed in my friend’s pale pink blazer and my bright green glasses. I hadn’t packed my most professional attire, instead looking more like an amalgamation of my odd personal style and what I could borrow from others.
One woman complimented my shoes, Keith Haring themed Dr. Martens loafers. She looked vaguely familiar in the way many reporters do. I saw the big name reporters file in and out: CNN, Fox and the New York Times. Many of the faces I had seen grace my computer screen many a time. I didn’t know their names.
The briefing was delayed by thirty minutes, something I and the other reporters clearly expected. They milled about while waiting, eating snacks and taking their seats. I sat glued to my wall, wishing I had eaten before coming.
Enter Jen Psaki. One of the photographers commented that he was glad she wore a white dress today, instead of the navy color she had worn two days in a row before. The press briefing began in a flash and I started to scribble down notes.
Once I relaxed a little and realized I was recording the briefing on my phone, I looked up and actually took in the briefing. Psaki seemed no different from all the livestreams. The most interesting factor was getting to see the action from a different angle.
I noticed quite quickly that nobody was paying full attention. Some people wrote the occasional note, and others had their phone recording the conversation. But every reporter there was typing away at an email at their laptop or scrolling through Twitter.
That surprised me momentarily, until I remembered that these reporters are here every day. I realized quickly that Psaki was saying the exact same things day in and day out. It was nothing new.
Somebody in the aisle next to me got up from her seat, and a kind young reporter asked if I wanted to take the empty chair. I agreed and sat down quickly, excited to be more a part of the action (and rest my weary feet).
I glanced at the reporter’s card and saw she was a Bloomberg reporter. She had a list of questions prepared for Psaki and kept raising her hand, but was thoroughly ignored.
Sitting in that chair put me in the action. I felt a part of the crowd when the Fox News correspondent asked a ridiculous question and a giggle rippled through the room.
I took casual notes, still eyeing the way other journalists operated. I couldn’t hear a word that any of the reporters up front were saying. One person in my aisle asked a question that Psaki snapped back at, saying she’d answered it from the front row minutes before.
As Psaki continued her balancing act, the White House correspondents took turn pressing her on COVID-19. One asked about vaccine mandates for Federal employees. Another asked about the recency of CDC data. Psaki fell back again and again onto the administration’s messaging.
Seemingly as soon as it began it was over. Psaki and her team hustled out of the room and the crowd erupted with motion once again. The friendly Bloomberg reporter told me that there might be a spot in the basement where I could set up and work, so I joined her.
I followed the stream of White House Correspondents down the stairs and into a cramped basement filled with desks. Each had a different sign designation for the publication it belonged to. The reporter pointed me towards an unoccupied spot for a no-show reporter.
Once I opened my computer I realized I was far too hungry to focus, but I didn’t want to leave just yet. So I typed out some sentences and took in my surroundings for a few minutes more.
Two voices were discussing the briefing beyond a wall. I heard one wonder why Psaki ended so abruptly, and another ask why she didn’t ask questions beyond the first few rows. I’d always thought about the frustration of raising your hand and never getting called on, and apparently I wasn’t far off in my interpretation.
The President of the White House Correspondents Association Steven Portnoy walked by and slipped into his CBS office. The door was decorated with logos for the outlet. A third unnamed voice joined the two who were venting about the briefing and clarified that Psaki had in fact followed protocol to end the briefing.
My stomach gnawed at me. I only had three sentences written. The happenings around me were far more interesting than writing an article right now. I realized if I wanted to finish my work I’d have to leave, even though I wanted to wrap myself up in that room for hours.
I said farewell to the helpful Bloomberg reporter and made my way to the exit. I took one last glance back before I dropped off my badge at the White House gates. The once silent area bustled with camera crews and chatting workers. The building wasn’t so intimidating anymore.
Thirty minutes later I scarfed down a turkey club and filed my article. My editor said she was proud of me and that I should be too. The more I look back on the experience, I am.
I’m excited to work my way back there. Wherever I end up, though, I know I’ll find a way to belong. I’m not worried about it.