With one question, Trump spokesman upends the White House press pecking order

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The first question went to LifeZette.

One more time: The first organization on whom White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called upon at his daily briefing Tuesday was LifeZette.

LifeZette?

It's a cultural and political site with a conservative bent founded two years ago by Laura Ingraham, the talk radio host and Fox News pundit. The chief executive is Peter Anthony, who sold a business to The Economist Group and worked on the business side, in part marketing digital, at CQ-Roll Call.

Political editor Jon Conradi was a Republican congressional staffer and consultant before signing up. Chief Washington reporter Jim Stinson just moved from Florida, where he labored remotely for the 28-person operation that seeks to differentiate itself from conservative competitors by covering parenting, faith, pop culture and health — not just politics.

Stinson was standing when called upon for the first question since, no surprise, LifeZette is too new to have earned a seat in the briefing room. Those are doled out by the White House Correspondents' Association and reflect a mix of internal politics and evidence of what it deems serious and sustained coverage of the beat.

If you don't know much about the briefings, you need only know this: They are redolent with tradition and an air of media entitlement. It doesn't matter the president, his spokesman generally sucks up to the big dogs of the media: the big newspapers, broadcast networks, the cable news channels and the dominant wire service, the Associated Press.

Most of the times I've been at them, there's an opening statement by the press secretary, then an "I'll be glad to take your questions. (Fill in name), AP."

Then comes, "Thanks, (fill in first name of spokesman), Vladimir Putin said today that..." Or another question on an obvious story of the moment.

Donald Trump's communications folks will surely play ball with many of the big dogs since their boss is so clearly desperate for their approval even as he derides them. But, Tuesday, the first question went to an organization surely little known to most in the briefing room.

Change is afoot, as Ingraham well knows, having been a primetime speaker at the Republican convention in Cleveland that nominated Trump. She discussed various possible positions with the Trump clan before deciding to stay put.

"President Trump obviously sees public value in outreach to more diverse media outlets," says Ingraham, the editor in chief. "This is good and helps keep everyone on their toes. In the new media era, no one has a monopoly on transmitting news and analysis to the people. That may upset the old guard, but as someone used to say, that's the way it is."

Conradi said that his colleagues back in the office watched the briefing, saw Spicer call on Stinson and, in some cases, "got up on their feet. It was a notable moment for us."

He argues, however, that his crew earned the moment by staying on top of trends that led to Trump's victory. It took seriously early support for him and also for Sen. Ted Cruz, "while some other, more mainstream, older outlets seemed not to understand it. It was a shock for the old guard whereas we think we called it in advance and explained why Trump might find success."

They were not tipped that they'd be called upon. If there was any vague hint, at least in retrospect, it came during a recent transition briefing. There, Spicer called on Stinson and also saw that he got a tour of the transition offices.

As for Anthony, he believes LifeZette is finding a niche in a crowded right-of-center marketplace, where the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, National Review, The Weekly Standard and the Daily Caller, among others, tend to offer more "red meat, political stuff."

"The content is all our own, we're staying away from salacious headlines and our audience is not necessarily Washington, D.C. people with time to dig into everything. We try to be less rhetoric-driven and to not chase clickbait. We'd like to think that a broader spectrum gives us a different perspective."

Whether that proves a successful business model, one thing is now clear. In a fashion, it's got a seat at the Trump table, if not in the White House briefing room.

A free speech clampdown?

BuzzFeed reported, "The U.S. Department of Agriculture has banned scientists and other employees in its main research division from publicly sharing everything from the summaries of scientific papers to USDA-branded tweets as it starts to adjust to life under the Trump administration." (BuzzFeed)

It might be noted, before media folks start hyperventilating over Trump administration repression, that there are court cases limiting free speech protections of government employees, including a 2006 Supreme Court decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. (Cornell University)

So it's not an open-and-shut matter. There was also this declaration only three years ago from the Society of Professional Journalists to President Obama:

"You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration — politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in." (SPJ)

If the Trump folks prove guilty, they ain't the first.

Nate Silver leads the pack

So what that Silver was dramatically errant by forecasting a Hillary Clinton win? Chartbeat, the crack cocaine for a few too many editors and reporters, disclosed its ranking of the best-read digital stories of last year and "the top of them all was a 2016 presidential election forecast by Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight." (Poynter)

A stunning short

If you missed it, as I had, check out a 21-minute New York Times film that was nominated for a short-film Oscar yesterday. It's called "4.1 Miles" and inspects the tragic travail of a Greek Coast Guard captain, off the gorgeous island of Lesbos, who seeks to save thousands of Middle Eastern refugees from drowning as they seek freedom. (The Times)

It's terrific. And this quote resonates: "Life used to be under control. It was calm." No more. It doesn't get much more primal than this. Check it out, then knock on wood.

The morning babble

"They're gonna build the wall!" Steve Doocy said with relish on "Fox & Friends," while he and Ainsley Earhardt chided State Department "bureaucrats" for letting into the country 500 refugees from nations they called "terror havens" prior to Rex Tillerson taking over there. They should watch The Times Oscar nominee flick.

MSNBC's "Morning Joe" discussed the wall, too, and rumored curbs on Middle East immigration. Trump whisperer Joe Scarborough (who now calls himself a "Red State interpreter") backed the notion of "a study" on enhanced interrogation techniques (as if we don't know enough on everything from sleep deprivation to waterboarding), abruptly asking a head-shaking Mika Brzezinski "to let me finish my point, please." Cokie Roberts appeared dyspeptic.

CNN's "New Day" was back on false claims of voter fraud, with co-host Chris Cuomo underscoring Trump's "lust for conspiracy" now being "fed" by top aide Steven Bannon. And reality elsewhere intruded with coverage of trucks bombs going off in Somalia outside a hotel, with actual live reporting (thanks, CNN), not mere studio punditry about Trump, in a live report from Abu Dhabi.

A divine assessment

Looking to go beyond the usual suspects when it comes to Trump analysis, I broached Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" notion with Richard Rosengarten, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

"Kate McKinnon and the SNL crew got Ms. Conway just right — Trump's chanteuse, who can say anything glibly and act as if it sticks," Rosengarten said. "You media folks face the challenge of calling this what it is. We readers/viewers need to pay attention."

"'Alternative" yoked with 'fact' is an oxymoron."

Bill Maher and Trump

Cheddar, the new and excellent younger-skewing business news outlet, beckoned Alex Thomas of Rare News to discuss Bill Maher bashing Trump supporters as "pillbillies" and "drug addicts." Maher was mocking the derision of an analysis of Trump support in states and counties with high rates of drug addictions and painkiller prescriptions. (Vox)

Thomas noted that Trump hasn't really gone after big entertainment companies in the same way he's attacked journalists. As far as whether he can scare them, anyway, Thomas said don't bet on it, certainly as long as the likes of "Saturday Night Live" reap big ratings by deriding him.

Channels you may not know

"Those of you who have already made the break from cable for streaming options have come to understand that there are more entertainment options out there then you realized before you started looking." (The Streaming Advisor)

So it looks at the "Top 10 OTA Channels You Have Not Heard Of." They include Laff, "a comedy network that features sitcoms from the 80s and 90s; Bounce TV, "a network that highlights Americans Actors and as well as running shows targeted towards the community"; and Comet TV, "a Sci-Fi based channel that features a variety of shows from classic series like 'The Outer Limits' to more contemporary fare like 'Babylon 5.'"

Not a fan of David Brooks

"New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is to genuine intellectual inquiry as Flintstones vitamins are to the polio vaccine, filed a column Tuesday about the weekend's spectacularly well-attended anti-Trump women's marches. And there must have been some sort of mistake at Times HQ, because they put his column in the newspaper even though it belongs at the bottom of a well." (Slate)

Time concedes an error

The estimable Nancy Gibbs, now the managing editor of Time magazine and long a stellar writer for the publication, "issued an apology on Tuesday for an error that the Trump administration has repeatedly used to criticize the press in the last week." (Poynter)

"In doing so, she pushed back against claims from the administration that the magazine made a deliberate error when reporter Zeke Miller incorrectly reported that the White House had removed a bust of civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office."

So they were a lot quicker to concede error than the administration, still clinging to the Trump claim about millions of illegal votes. It quadrupled down on the claim yesterday. (Poynter)

Cashing in

Bloomberg reports, "Gary Cohn’s jump from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Donald Trump’s administration is helping him unlock more than $284 million in pent-up bonuses, stock holdings and other investments through the Wall Street bank."

"To help Cohn avoid conflicts of interest as Trump’s top economic adviser, the bank is letting its former president immediately collect about $65 million in cash and stock tied to its future performance. That’s on top of roughly $220 million of Goldman equity he already held or was awaiting, as well as stakes in company-run investment funds, according to regulatory filings Tuesday. He must liquidate the holdings to take his new post." (Bloomberg)

A pioneer of our video addiction dies

"Lee O’Denat, who went by 'Q,' started WorldStarHipHop as a place to sell mix tapes. It evolved into an aggregating powerhouse with its reputation tied to the shocking videos of fights that it shared with a huge audience of young viewers." (The Washington Post)

"Just days before WorldStarHipHop is set to launch a new MTV series, TMZ reported that O’Denat has died at 43. WorldStarHipHop later released a statement confirming the news."

A startling sports scoop

Imagine: "Michigan is committed to paying Jim Harbaugh's top three football assistants $1 million each per year. In doing so, it becomes the first public institution, of those that are required to make contracts available via Freedom of Information Act request, to pay three assistant coaches at least $1 million each." (The Associated Press)

In search of adulation

"Alternative facts." Lies about the Inauguration Day crowd. Claims of millions of illegal votes stripping him of a popular vote victory. And, now, this:

"Activating the reserve military forces to assist in the urgent mission, President Donald Trump reportedly deployed the National Guard to a press conference Tuesday in order to provide him with a standing ovation"

“'We received orders from the commander-in-chief at approximately 0600 hours to mobilize all available units in the D.C. area to the White House press briefing room, where personnel were instructed to supply a thunderous round of applause at the conclusion of President Trump’s prepared statements,' said Chief of the National Guard Gen. Joseph Lengyel, noting that hundreds of reserve troops had been directed to clap and cheer after Trump spoke on such hot-button issues as the economy and his relationship with the press."

Well, there indeed were cheerleaders Kellyanne Conway and Omarosa Manigault on hand in the briefing room yesterday. But it was actually Sean Spicer at the podium. A good try, nonetheless, by The Onion.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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