The White House Briefing Room It Ain’t

Today, armed with official guest status, I ventured into my first Bundespressekonferenz (national press conference) — and then, half an hour later, my second. I headed over to the Press House with an FAZ economics reporter who seemed to think that my halting German speech was no indication that I couldn’t follow a thousand-mile-an-hour stream of German financial-political analysis. It’s a 10 or 15-minute walk from my office, on the other side of the Spree; on the walk there, we crossed from the east into the west, and then back into the east.

I’ve often complained in DC that the state of disrepair into which the National Mall and the area around the federal buildings are allowed to fall would never be permitted in any other first-world capital. But Berlin is the exception, for the simple reason that it’s still very much a work in progress. Half of the government buildings are ultramodern — see here, for example, for their equivalent of the Supreme Court — and there are patches of wasteland around them that the city simply hasn’t gotten around to developing, or at least curating.

The Press House is one of those modern buildings. It’s also a unique institution, and actually not a government building at all.

— OK, quick pause. I was just doing a Google search for the Bundespressekonferenz, and I accidentally came up with the Bundespressestrand, the federal press beach. Yup, there’s a federal press beach. It’s near the Press House. Being a journalist in Germany ain’t bad. —

Anyway, I was saying: The Bundespressekonferenz is a unique institution, because it’s run and owned (including the building) entirely by journalists and their publications. In 1949, some journalists invited Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to address them and answer their questions, and the tradition stuck. So now, three times a week (and sometimes more), the press “invites” government officials to brief them and take their questions — and the government officials never decline. Generally, these officials are the press secretaries for the chancellor and the federal ministries, although sometimes the chancellor or ministers themselves are invited. It’s all on the press’s home turf.

And some turf it is. Here’s the view from lobby of the building up into the briefing room:

And here’s the briefing room itself — about three times the size of the White House counterpart:

The first briefing was by Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, on a new law to protect the personal information of employees in the social media age. Here’s de Maizière after the briefing, talking to TV reporters in the lobby:

Between “sets,” I stopped into the press cafe, across the little creek running through the lobby, for a bite — truly gourmet lamb cutlet, for just 6 euros. I’ll repeat what I said about journalists living well here. Anyway, here’s the cafe:

Then back into the briefing room, for the typical briefing by the new Regierungssprecher (administration press secretary), Steffen Seibert, until recently a TV news anchor. (It’d be like Obama picking Rachel Maddow as his press secretary, which, frankly, could be sort of awesome, but I can’t really fathom happening. The line between media and politics, I think, is much more easily crossed here than in America.) Representatives of the various ministries were also there:

I know the room looks empty, but there were about 40 journalists there.

OK, it’s really late and I’m getting tired, so just a few more bullet points:

  • There was no real security to speak of, outside of a squinty guy standing in the front corner of the briefing room with an earpiece. I got in, no questions asked.
  • The interaction between the press secretary and the press is far less confrontational than in America. A Robert Gibbs conference has the feel of a firing squad, where he’s just dodging bullets until he can finally say, “OK, gunmen, that’s it for today.” Here, most of the questions were requests for clarification of specific policy points, and surprisingly few were directed at Seibert, since he doesn’t have the wonky knowledge of the ministry people. There really wasn’t any of what Sarah Palin would call “gotcha” questioning.
  • The conferences themselves frankly weren’t terribly enthralling — and it didn’t help that I only understood around 70 percent of what was being said. But the experience was very cool, and I’ll be going back again soon. Also hoping to hit up a hearing in the Reichstag before long.

Good night!

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One Response to The White House Briefing Room It Ain’t

  1. Pingback: Inside the Reichstag | Ein Berliner, Briefly

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