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Robert Gibbs vs. April Ryan: The Groan Heard 'Round the Briefing Room

Ryan was trying to get at whether the high-profile White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers was working the event for the state dinner or there as an invited guest, or both.
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You've probably seen it by now.

Wednesday afternoon at the White House Daily Press Briefing, veteran radio correspondent April Ryan was hitting press secretary Robert Gibbs hard with a line of questioning about the uninvited gate-crashers at last month's state dinner.

Ryan, who reports for American Urban Radio Networks, was trying to get at whether the high-profile White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers was working the event that night or there as an invited guest at the dinner, or both -- and trying to get a better sense of how much responsibility the social office had in the fiasco -- when her questions struck a nerve with Gibbs.

RYAN: No, no, no, did she invite herself, or did the President ask her -- her name was on that list, and social secretaries are the ones who put the names on the list. Did she invite herself or did the President --

GIBBS: Was she at the dinner? April, April, calm down. Just take a deep breath for one second. See? This happens with my son, he does the same thing.


RYAN: Don't play with me, I'm being serious. Do not blow it off.

GIBBS: And I'm giving you a serious answer. Was she at the dinner? Yes.

RYAN: Was she an invited guest?

GIBBS: She's the social secretary. She had the primary --

RYAN: Social secretaries are not guests of the dinner.

GIBBS: She is the primary -- for running the dinner. I'm going to get back to weightier topics like 98,000 men and women in Afghanistan. Jonathan, take us away...

You could hear an audible groan -- and see other reporters wince -- when Gibbs, 38, compared Ryan, 42, to a petulant child throwing a fit.

No he didn't!

Ryan, a 23-year veteran reporter who has spent the past 13 of those years covering the White House, is not new to the briefing room or contentious exchanges with press secretaries. She has mixed it up with three presidents and at least seven of their media spokesmen (and one spokeswoman).

And Gibbs has had his share of dust-ups with other reporters in less than a year in the hot seat -- just ask Jake Tapper of ABC News. He, like all press secretaries, is only human, and it is easy to become frustrated day after day when reporters pummel him with questions he thinks he's answered, and answered and answered again.

But standing there, with the seal of the White House behind him, Gibbs' reaction was, frankly, smart-alecky, condescending and inappropriate, no matter how frustrated he felt with Ryan's line of questioning.

To be sure, April Ryan is nothing if not aggressive -- sometimes "in-your-face" -- when she pursues a story. She has been for most of her career. Would I have gone at him like she did? Not my style. But I admire her for it, anyway.

Still, it was certainly appropriate for Ryan, or any other reporter, to ask about the overall involvement of the White House social secretary and what, if any, impact that office's activities may have had on the breakdown in security that evening. And it was appropriate for her to keep asking even when she was being blown off.

That's what reporters do.

I know and respect social secretary Rogers, and have a pretty good idea she was likely working hard that night on every detail to make sure the first state dinner of the Obama administration went flawlessly. But she knows she is now in the big leagues, and tough questions come with the job.

Gibbs is also a seasoned pro in dealing with the press. He normally works hard not to let reporters get under his skin. He prides himself on his sense of humor, calm and a respectful, good-natured rapport with a normally, well, ornery press corps.

But this time, in defending Rogers, he lost it. To patronize Ryan like he did, talking down to her from the podium, was beneath him and his office.

One only hopes that on Monday morning, Ryan is greeted with a fresh cup of coffee and a warm, sincere apology. Then we can move on.

-- Bryan Monroe is a visiting professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He was the former president of The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines and assistant vice president/news at Knight Ridder. He has also been a regular contributor to CNN and helped lead the team in Biloxi, Miss. that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He can be reached at