Excuse my ignorance, but I had no idea — until reading about the recent kerfuffle cum journalist Twitter brawl — that by tradition the Associated Press always gets to ask the first question at White House press briefings. (It was given on Monday to the New York Post, creating consternation.)
Which leads me to ask: Who anointed the AP and made them king?
In fact, why would anybody ever, by tradition or for any other reason, always get to ask the first or even the fifth question at a White House press briefing or conference?
Or, to drill down a little further, why does any media outlet get preference over any other when it comes to asking questions? Or still further, who determines what reporters and organizations get into the briefing room in the first place to sit forever in rows one or two?
Well, um… professionalism.
Oh, I see. Is that a degree from Columbia Journalism School? Hemingway didn’t even go to college and could outwrite everyone in that briefing room by an exponential factor. Journalism isn’t brain surgery or even anesthesiology. It’s an occupation for ambitious hustlers with a gift for gab not so different from screenwriting, but not so high paying.
The truth is that those organizations are indeed there by tradition, a tradition of droit du seigneur and corporate thuggery that makes you yearn for the extension of anti-trust legislation.
You get the position, you keep the position. It’s a game of rich, entrenched bullies that happen to be monolithic media companies anxious to preserve their monopolies. We all know their names and logos, which have been drilled into us as the purveyors of all information from early childhood. As it was so succinctly put by A. J. Liebling back in 1960: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to the man who owns one.”
Does this system profit the people? Is it anything even approximating what the Founders envisioned for our press? Or does it exist for the benefit of those privileged journalists and their corporate bosses?
Pretty obvious, isn’t it? So when Sean Spicer announced the other day there would be four Skype seats in the White House press room for journalists from presumably smaller, outside-the-Beltway outfits, I applauded. But I asked — four? Why not forty?
Forget “faux news.” We have a “faux system” that needs to be upended. Without that, it’s “garbage in, garbage out,” as they say in computerland. And not just for that obvious reason defined by what Barack Obama might have termed a lack of “fairness” — that Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three percent but he loses the vote inside the briefing room by, I would guess, nearly ninety percent. It also makes for restricted viewpoints and boring, repetitive questions with little originality and no substantive information beyond what we could learn from communiques.
Actually, the system itself is institutionally unfair. It hasn’t changed in any significant sense in decades, as if the ghost of the UPI’s Helen “Sitting Buddha” Thomas were still plopped down in the front row as she was since the Kennedy administration.
The question is what to do about it. First of all, move out of that tiny briefing room with its (deliberately?) small number of seats that encourages this continued monopolistic system. Find a decent venue where a reasonable number can gather. Encourage new voices — not just journalists or even bloggers but maybe actual citizens to ask questions. The people, right and left, don’t need a filter. They know what they want to know, probably better than those who ask questions for them.
Yes, there are many problems inherent in this that would need to be worked out, many snafus, real and imagined, along the way. But this is the time to do something about a moribund system.
Will Trump and his administration have the courage to do it, to really upend what is essentially a license for permanent elitism?
We shall see. But instead of a perpetual battle between Trump and the press — a war that has barely started yet has already become tedious beyond words — it would be nice to find a new way of working that would actually inform the citizens of this democratic republic so they could make the necessary educated judgments. What we have now is close to the reverse.
Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media. His latest book is I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already.