Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back

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. th

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.

References

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

New Position as Quello Chair at MSU

After 12 great years at Oxford, I am delighted to be joining MSU as their new Quello Professor. Not sure how my former USC Trojan colleagues will react to me joining the Spartans!  The current Director of the Quello Center, Professor Steve Wildman, a recent Chief Economist at the FCC, posted a much appreciated announcement of the appointment. I’ll be joining MSU in August 2014 and look forward to staying in touch with you over this and related blogs in the future. One of my goals will be to put the Internet and Web into the center of a forward strategy for building the Quello Center’s role in the new digital world of communication research, policy and regulation. My work as a co-principal on the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre will continue at MSU, as will my work on the Fifth Estate, partly through the support of a project on collaboration at the DTU (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet) as well as through support of the Quello Center.  At MSU, I will hold the James H. Quello Chair of Media and Information Policy.

Announcement by MSU http://cas.msu.edu/oxford-university-professor-named-quello-chair/

 

Financial Times Opts for Independence from Press Regulation

Hope springs eternal. Wonderful to learn that the FT has opted out of both the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), as well as the Parliament-backed Royal Charter system, which threatens to undermine the independence of the press in Britain. The paper is creating its own self-regulatory system through a new ‘editorial complaints commissioner’, according to The Independent (18 April 2014) and PressGazette, see: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/financial-times-opts-out-ipso-favour-its-own-system-regulation  The FT might continue to play a role in the Fourth Estate if it continues to guard its independence. Hopefully other papers will follow its lead.

The Fifth Estate: Not the Movie

A number of colleagues have brought my attention to the popular launch of a movie, entitled The Fifth Estate. It is not unrelated to my work on the Fifth Estate, as it focuses on WikiLeaks, and such whistle-blowing Web sites are one of many ways in which networked individuals can hold institutions more accountable. For those who like the movie or the idea of a Fifth Estate, I invite you to read more. It is actually used by me as a means to convey the significance of the Internet as a means for empowering networked individuals in ways comparable to the Fourth Estate, the press, of an earlier era. See, for example:

Dutton, W. H. (2007), ‘Through the Network (of Networks) – the Fifth Estate’, Inaugural lecture, Examination Schools, University of Oxford, 15 October. Available online at: http://webcast.oii.ox.ac.uk/?view=Webcast&ID=20071015_208

 

 Dutton, W. H. (2009), ‘Democracy on the Line: The Fifth Estate?’, Oxford Today, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 12-15.

 

 Dutton, W. H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

 

Dutton, W. H. (2010), ‘Democratic Potential of the Fifth Estate’, PerAda Magazine, http://www.perada-magazine.eu/pdf/003003/003003.pdf

Dutton, W. H. (2010), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging Through the Internet and Freedom of Expression’, pp. 22-25 in A News Future and the Future of the Journalism Profession: An IPI Report. International Press Institute and the Poytner Institute.

 

 Dutton, W. H. (2010), ‘The Fifth Estate: Democratic Social Accountability through the Emerging Network of Networks’, pp. 3-18 in Nixon, P. G., Koutrakou, V. N., and Rawal, R. (Eds), Understanding E-Government in Europe: Issues and Challenges. London: Routledge.

 

Dutton, W. H. (2011), ‘A Networked World Needs a Fifth Estate’, Wired Magazine, 22 October, http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2011/11/ideas-bank/william-dutton  

 

 Dutton, W. H. (2012), ‘The Fifth Estate: A New Governance Challenge’, pp. 584-98 in Levi-Faur, D. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newman, N., Dutton, W. H., and Blank, G. (2012), ‘Social Media in the Changing Ecology of News: The Fourth and Fifth Estates in Britain’, International Journal of Internet Science, 7(1): 6-22.

 

 Dutton, W. H. (2013), ‘The Internet and Democratic Accountability: The Rise of the Fifth Estate’, pp. 39-55 in Lee, F.L.F., Leung, L., Qui, J. L., and Chu, D.S.C. (eds), Frontiers in New Media Research. Abbingdon: Informa, Taylor and Francis/Routledge.

 

 Dutton, W. H., and Dubois, E. (2013), ‘The Fifth Estate of the Digital World’, pp. 131-43 in Youngs, G. (ed.), Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights. London: Routledge.

 

 Dubois, E., and Dutton, W. H. (2013), ‘The Fifth Estate in Internet Governance: Collective Accountability of a Canadian Policy Initiative’, Revue française d’Etudes Américaines RFEA, forthcoming.

 

 

What Can You Say Online?

The Economist recently addressed the chilling effect that libel law is likely to have on Twitter, arguing that: ‘Now it [Twitter] seems to fall under the law’s shadow to a greater extent than similar speech does on the offline world’ (November 24, 2012: 37). But it is not simply libel law that could undermine freedom of expression online, it is also criminal laws addressing speech in largely pre-Internet aware days.

Taken together, Internet users – three-quarters of the British public – must be wondering what they can say online. For those in doubt in the aftermath of some actions taken against Twitter users and other online netizens, you may find a recent blog by Roger Darlington to be a helpful place to start in thinking seriously about this question.

Roger Darlington, a former member of the Consumer Panel at Ofcom, has posted a blog, entitled ‘What can’t you say on the Internet?’. He lays on the various viewpoints on this question, as well as UK legislation of relevance. You can read his blog at http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/commswatch/?p=4647 Take a look at Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, along with Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

I hope you read this for yourself, but Roger argues that a strict interpretation of UK law could underpin ‘a staggering amount of content to be prosecuted under the criminal law.’ This leads him to conclude that it is time to modernize law and regulation. From his perspective, which I share, there is a need to protect speech online such that people are not subject to inappropriate or disproportionate punishments for such things as tweeting a bad joke or expressing a viewpoint that might be viewed as malicious or indecent.

Consider Roger’s viewpoint and let me know if you have a constructive view on this topic. Roger believes there should be more consistency across media, while I believe that the different communication infrastructures are different in ways that require unique regulatory frameworks. It may be that striving for consistency has led to this disproportionate coverage of online expression. In any case, I agree that this issue will only grow in importance as more communication shifts to the Internet. Consumers need to know what they can and cannot say or this uncertainty alone could have a chilling effect on speech.

There will be an increasing array of issues driven by the convergence of media and the Internet. Content regulation is certainly one key example of such an issue. Over decades, standards of expression on television have become relatively well understood, even if they are sometimes breached and the subject of complaints. But the Internet is not television and is not and – it seems to me – cannot be regulated like television. As but one example, 72 hours of video are posted on YouTube every minute, and this is only one of many video sites on the Internet.

I hope you find Roger’s blog helpful – eye opening – in framing this issue for consumers and netizens. It also provides a nice example of law not keeping up with technological change, and becoming an unintended but unanticipated constraint on technological change. If I have this wrong, let me know.

Whichever Estate: Exactly Right

Whichever Estate: Exactly Right

Mitt Romney has been accused of a number of gaffes, but one seems a bit unfair, as he spoke of ‘… some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are more interested in finding something to write about …’.* Well – Candidate Romney is not the only person to wonder what to call the new role of the Internet and social media in creating an estate of the 21st Century that is every bit as important as the press since the 18th Century. I’ve called it the Fifth Estate, and a piece of mine with others was published today about the interrelationship between the Fourth and Fifth Estate in Britain. Hope you have a chance to read it and put a name to this new estate of the Internet realm. See: http://www.ijis.net/ijis7_1/ijis7_1_newman_et_al_pre.html  So it is exactly right to recognize an estate other than the Fourth.

 

*Quoted from Chris McGreal, ‘Rivals seize on candidate’s string of gaffes’, The Guardian, 1 August 2012, p. 17.