News & Politics

Yes, We Still Need White House Press Briefings

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. Spicer answered questions about the Dakota Pipeline, infrastructure, jobs and other topics. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“The press briefings have gone dark,” writes The Hill, and so the debate continues. The Trump administration has reduced the number of briefings in recent weeks and is increasingly insisting they not be recorded by reporters.

The Hill:

But Spicer and other White House aides have suggested they’ve made changes for another reason: to thwart the press, which Trump has repeatedly derided as the “enemy of the people.”

In a revealing interview Wednesday with conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, Spicer accused reporters of seeking to make a name for themselves by asking combative questions that will get them attention on cable news.

“There’s a lot of them that want to become YouTube stars and ask some snarky question that’s been asked eight times,” Spicer said. “There is a bit of snarkiness now with the press, because, again, a lot of them are more focused about getting their clip on air than they are of actually taking the time to understand an issue.”

The exchanges are more “substantive” when the cameras aren’t rolling because reporters have no incentive to engage in “performance art,” Spicer said.

The White House has argued that, despite the diminished presence of the press briefings, they are as accessible as any administration in the past. They say they’re ready to respond to reporter questions over email or through background briefings with officials.

But vocal members of the press corps are revolting and demanding more transparency. CNN’s Jim Acosta tweeted a picture of his socks at one off-camera briefing this week, saying it was all he was allowed to air. He then went on television to blast Spicer as “useless.”

Even some at Trump’s favorite network — Fox News — have bristled at the changes.

“We need live press conferences, they have to be documented,” Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum said Thursday.

But so far, the administration appears pleased with the results.

“We will never be intimidated by the dishonest media corporations that will do anything to get people to watch their screens,” Trump declared at his Cedar Rapids, Iowa rally on Wednesday night.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s try and break it down. First, the White House has control over who is granted press credentials. Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, The Daily Caller, and Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal all have a presence there, as does a reporter from RedState. Heck, even Mike Cernovich applied for and received a day pass to attend a White House briefing. (PJM, meanwhile, is still waiting for credentials. We’ve been told these things take a very long time, although it seems like Gateway Pundit managed to cut through the bureaucracy rather quickly.) Are the aforementioned conservative sites all enemies of the people? Or is Trump just talking about the ones from left-leaning outlets that give him negative coverage? (That’s a rhetorical question.) If they want even more reporters from conservative outlets in the room, it’s within their power to do something about that. Unless, of course, this is really about silencing dissenting voices, which Trump threatened to do during the election.

Second, Trump and his staff like to claim that he prefers to speak directly to the American people via Twitter. That sounds good until you realize that only 24 percent of online adults use Twitter, and of those, a majority (57 percent) use it only weekly or less often. Just because the president has 32.7 million followers (many of them likely fake) doesn’t mean they’re all reading his tweets. At best, it’s an inefficient way to communicate his messages to the America people, even if you set aside the fact that he’s largely preaching to the Trump choir when he tweets. Further, his tweets are often cryptic and confusing. Members of his staff have essentially told us that we shouldn’t read too much into them. The problem is, of course, that his tweets are likely to contradict what his staff is telling the public on any given day, which has led to some awkward moments (to say the least) for the beleaguered Sean Spicer.

In spite of (and perhaps because of) the aforementioned, it’s essential for the White House to hold regular on-the-record, recorded press briefings. We the People need to know what our elected officials are up to and the most efficient way to get that information out to the masses is through the media —left, right, center, and neutral. An administration at odds with the press is nothing new. If Trump expected to get only fawning coverage from reporters, he was sadly misinformed. Yes, MSM outlets lean left and are biased. But Fox and a number of other outlets lean right and are also biased. We are blessed to live in the glorious age of the Internet, where Americans are no longer dependent on three TV stations and a hometown newspaper for their news. Again, it’s within the White House’s power to create a more balanced media environment by bringing more conservative media voices into the mix and granting interviews to more non-MSM sources.

Many of the problems they’re experiencing with the press are self-inflicted, and they’re not going away anytime soon as long as the president continues to go rogue on Twitter. You can’t really blame the press for reporting on the messaging contradictions (although there’s plenty to criticize about press coverage of the administration). But the answer isn’t to build a wall and a moat (with alligators!) around the White House to keep reporters out (as appealing as that may sound). The answer is for the White House to get its act together and present consistent, coherent messaging to the American people so we can have confidence that they know what they’re doing and so we can understand why they’re doing it.

Question for discussion: Why does Trump consent to interviews with “enemies of the people,” appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in April and with NBC’s Lester Holt in May? It’s not possible that his war with the press is manufactured outrage to keep his supporters engaged, right?