Give up on getting this White House to answer reporters’ questions; focus on the next one

Sarah Sanders. (White House photo)

It’s time to declare press relations with this White House a total loss.

The latest news is that members of the White House press corps are so desperate that they are demanding that Sarah Sanders spend more time insulting them, lying to them, and not answering their questions.

White House Correspondents’ Association president Olivier Knox called the White House’s abandonment of regular briefings a “retreat from transparency and accountability” that “sets a terrible precedent.”  Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote that the briefings “show reporters at least attempting to get at the truth by questioning those in power.”

But the practice under Sanders has been so perverted and debased that there’s simply no point asking for more.

As with so many other important, valuable presidential practices that Trump has smashed to bits,

what we need to do is start thinking about how to put them back together when he’s gone.

Maybe Trump has done us a service, in a way. The reality is that White House-press relations – judged by the standards of transparency and accountability — were in terrible shape even before he came and declared journalist the “enemy of the people”.

Consider those daily press briefings folks are getting misty-eyed about. During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, press secretaries consistently saw their job as issuing a talking point then batting down questions, not answering them. Despite Obama’s pledge of transparency, press secretary Robert Gibbs smoothly picked up the deflection baton from Dana Perino.

Admittedly, simpering Sean Spicer and sneering Sarah Sanders turned that into a truth cudgel, but it’s been a long time since a press secretary straight-forwardly answered an embarrassing question.

Some critics have attacked the press corps for not taking more concerted, even organized action against Trump’s press office. But news organizations tend to want to operate with complete independence. And anyway, there have never been any agreed-upon standards about how much access and transparency a White House should be required to provide.

So here’s our chance. Let’s set high, formal expectations for the next president. Simply being “better than Trump” is way too low a bar. The idea shouldn’t be to raise the bar a bit, it’s to set a whole new bar.

Let’s get presidential candidates to pledge to meet those expectations. Then, every time they fail to meet them, it’s news!

What about a minimum number of press briefings and press conferences? A minimum number of sit-down interviews – and not just with friendly journalists? Regular access to decision-makers? More people authorized to speak on the record? And a commitment to explain what went into a decision rather than just repeating a stale talking point?

In fact, I think campaign reporters, rather than swallowing and regurgitating whatever crumbs they can get, should prioritize making clear public distinctions between candidates who are genuinely open to taking questions and being held accountable (if there are any) and those who are so circumscribed by fear of a bad sound bite that they say nothing beyond their pre-polled talking points.

(My advice to candidates in the latter category: Your opposition will create bad sound bites no matter what; better to drown them out than try to avoid them.)

I hope the next president continues to use Twitter to give the public insights into their thinking. But our expectations should be much higher than that. Back in 2008, I proposed a number of things that Obama could do to live up to his campaign promise to use the Internet to “create a transparent and connected democracy”.

He didn’t. And then Trump came along. But let’s try again. Let’s push for a White House web site that provides a window into the decision-making process, where some meetings are streamed live; where the president’s full daily calendar is posted online and visitor’s logs are updated frequently; where you get some sense of what is really going on in the White House and how responsive it is to the American people’s needs.

Let’s establish some basic, reasonable ground rules that almost everyone can agree upon for transparency and accountability. And then let’s hold the next president to them.

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