We need new rules for how the president communicates with the press

It's all smiles in the White House Briefing Room in this White House photo.
It’s all smiles in the White House Briefing Room in this White House photo.

A comedian who will not be named opens up one of his movies with an old joke: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.'”

I was reminded of the joke by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple‘s article Tuesday on the White House Correspondents’ Association’s repeated requests for more press briefings from Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The correspondents’ association president, Olivier Knox, is certainly correct that press briefings these days are infrequent and short. As Wemple notes, “Sanders did a mere 13 briefings across June, July and August, for a total of nearly four hours.”

But more importantly, they are useless when it comes to genuine news gathering. They are a mockery of the format. They are a mockery of the press.

Wemple acknowledges that view, but explains his own:

The briefings are the one place where reporters can get on-the-record replies to their questions, even if those replies amount to junk-food information. Otherwise, reporters are dependent on the mercurial president’s comments at ceremonial events and, of course, “senior administration officials” spinning the news on background. And as Knox wrote in a piece titled “Save the (terrible) White House briefing” — and written during the Obama administration — the briefing conveys the helpful message that no one is above being questioned.

I agree that the press briefing is hugely important – in theory. White House reporters – again, in theory – serve as the representatives of the public. No one else gets anywhere near as much access to the president and White House officials. The press is uniquely in a position to demand answers to the questions the public most deserves to have answered.

This access is particularly relevant in this administration, as Trump limits his public appearances to campaign rallies filled with rabid fans, or institutional settings where his role as Commander in Chief precludes dissent.

But as with many other elements of his presidency, Trump has simply taken an existing trend one gigantic step farther. George W. Bush, for instance, also hid behind the presidency to avoid contact with people who even potentially disagreed with him. (See my extensive coverage of the “Bush Bubble” in the previousl incarnation of White House Watch).

Similarly, as long as I’ve been watching press briefings carefully (i.e. since Bush II) they’ve been quite overtly all about deflecting questions, rather than answering them.

Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Tony Snow and Dana Perino all became famous for their own special ways of saying nothing. (Although McClellan, to his undying credit, came clean afterwards – see here and here — which is probably why see him on cable TV about as often as you see Snow, who is dead.)

Barack Obama’s talk about transparency during his first presidential campaign made many journalists hopeful. (Boy did I have hopes.) But when Robert Gibbs walked up to the podium in the White House Briefing Room for the first time, it was no different. In fact, Fleischer chortled that the efforts to control press access and coverage belied Obama’s promise of open government.

News of Jay Carney’s appointment at first delighted his fellow journalists, but he quickly disappointed. Josh Earnest was more of the same.

And then came Trump, whose press secretaries – first Sean Spicer then Sanders – shifted from deflecting questions to answering with blatant lies and prickly hostility. Along with Trump’s Twitter feed and campaign-rallly free-association, they have created an alternate reality for Trump supporters where Trump wins all the time.

Sanders has actually taken Spicer’s dissembling to a new level. As Wemple writes in another piece, “She is the master of the unassailable and ultimately meaningless reply.”

Larger servings of that are not in the interest of the American public.

What should the White House press corps be asking for? Well, it doesn’t really matter what they ask for as long as Trump is president.

As with many unofficial White House rules that Trump has completely broken, maybe now is the time to fix it right, for the next presidency.

So let’s ask another question: What should the standards be, going forward, for a president’s relationship to the press? Can such standards be established in some objective and concrete fashion? What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to how often the president should hold press conference, sit down for in-depth interviews with non-sycophantic journalists, hold town halls, and so on?

How could such standards be enforced? Could civil society play a role?

Consider this the beginning of a long discussion on this topic. I’ll follow up repeatedly in the coming weeks and months, including with interviews with experts and suggestions from readers.

2 thoughts on “We need new rules for how the president communicates with the press”

  1. “A comedian who will not be named”
    If you’re too fastidious to type “Woody Allen” then just tell the joke. As you say, it wasn’t original to him, anyway. Since you don’t need to credit him and you don’t want to credit him why did you bring him up?

Leave a Comment