I was on the brink of applauding the White House for challenging some traditions of the daily press briefings in opening to more news organizations and adding the Skype seats, only to then learn of some mainstream news organizations not being welcomed in the room. So instead of diversifying access, this seems to be a blatant political reconfiguration of access to the briefings.
Two Steps Forward
The White House Press Briefings have been slow to change, and seem antiquated in the face of new media. For this reason, I was pleased to learn of two developments.
First, there were changes in the seating. Since 1981, 49 seats were assigned to reporters to be present at the briefings by the White House Correspondent’s Association. The Association is arms length from the White House, so less open to charges of any partisan or other political bias. However, the mainstream press dominates the Association, which are assigned the prime seats in the front and are, by tradition, normally called on first. The new press Secretary, Sean Spicer, has admitted more reporters to the briefings albeit without assigned seats. He and the President have also made clear moves to not call on the mainstream media first, and in fact, they have made an effort to by pass mainstream correspondents for new arrivals to the briefing. This is a good step toward diversifying access to the news, diminishing privileged access by the elite press, and empowering more media outlets. However, ignoring the mainstream press in answering questions is of course a worrisome bias if continued.
Secondly, the White House enabled two so-called Skype channels for virtual and interactive participation by remote journalists. I have never been present in any White House briefing, but it appears that the set up permits about eight or more remote journalists to participate. This seems like a long overdue reform enabled by the Internet and the new media environment. Again, this diversifies and builds on the number of journalists with more direct access to the briefings. It also helps incrementally to escape from the locational bias of the press by enabling participation by correspondents anywhere in the world, not just physically in Washington D.C.
So far, some promising reforms. But then …
One Giant Leap Back
On Friday, February 24th, Sean Spicer ‘barred journalists from the New York Time and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing’ (Davis and Grynbaum 2017: A1). In addition to the Times, other press stopped from attending included the BBC, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. According to reports, other correspondents, from the Time magazine, and the Associated Press – which traditional had the first question – decided not to attend as a protest against this action (Davis and Grynbaum 2017).
In my view, it is okay to expand access to the briefings, even if this might dilute the role of those who have assigned seats, particularly in the front rows. It is great to broaden access to those who are remote from Washington DC. But once the White House restricts access by strong press organizations, and correspondents, it taints the entire process. Even if you believe the press is increasingly biased by partisan coverage, the remedy is not to punish the opposition, but to ensure that there is a more diverse and pluralistic range of sources with access to the briefings. Create a more diverse range of news sources, rather than a more politically tailored set of news sources. These restrictions will undermine the coverage by the press excluded, but also the coverage by those who are included, but become less trusted as objective sources.
Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.
Wright, Bruce. (2017), “White House Stops Press from Attending Media Briefing’, International Business Times, Yahoo! News, 24 February: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-stops-press-attending-201309162.html
3 thoughts on “Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back”
New York Times article on issues around any ‘viewpoint discrimination’ is selection of reporters: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/28/us/politics/white-house-barring-reporters-from-briefings.html?_r=0
I am a lone dissenter from the view that the number of words determines the value of communication. Titles of books can be meaningful, clear and civil, and so can tweets, but I appreciate the points you are making.
At this point, I think Trump and the national press (apart from Fox) have burned their bridges so thoroughly, that maybe it’ll actually be more productive if they just avoid face-to-face confrontations.
Given Trump’s style, written statements in a 300-400 word format might be a pragmatic compromise, from the point of view of trying to set up a form of communication that doesn’t degenerate into partisan trolling.
The 20-25 word format of a Tweet is (and always was) a disaster, as is Trump’s conversational style. And I might add, the “statement-in-the-form-of-a-question” format common in hostile interviews. Which Trump deserves, but since he always responds tit-for-tat with side-channel messaging rather than verbal depth, it just happens to be completely and utterly counterproductive. Unless the goal is to get a rise out of him. Which sounds like foolish strategy, but what do I know.