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

Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes

Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes

The Democratic Party debates have raised questions on whether Hillary Clinton’s positions on policy issues changed as a consequence of speaking fees and donations to her campaigns. Politicians and media pundits alike remind us that they do not read social science research. The key focus of campaign financing and lobbying is access, not more direct and vulgar efforts to buy votes. So, rather than ask whether Secretary Clinton or other candidates changed their policy positions as a consequence of financial support, we should be looking at whom they communicate with. Who has access to them?

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Shaping Access

Political influence is subtler than vote buying. Perhaps as the old adage says, everyone has their price. So hundreds of thousands of dollars might well influence some people. In the machine days, many voters cared less about whom they voted for, so they would gladly sell their vote for a turkey at Christmas or simply as a favor for a friend. But in most cases, effective lobbying of politicians is done through shaping a communication process, and money and donations tend to buy access to politicians, which in the long term shapes what they know and what they attend to among competing issues on their agenda.

In the 1950s, major interest group theories of political influence hypothesized direct effects of lobbying. Interest groups were perceived as simply giving money to politicians to win their support on key votes. This was sometimes called a billiard ball model of influence. The business or other stakeholder who lobbied most effectively would win the politician’s support. This proved to be naïve. hillary-<3s-trumps

Empirical research on lobbying by my late graduate school mentor, Lester Milbrath, and others, such as Anthony Dexter, tended to demonstrate that politicians seldom changed their positions as a consequence of lobbying. Instead, the implications and role of sophisticated lobbying efforts tended to focus on shaping the communication networks of the politicians. Support could get meetings, phone calls, dinners, and today, probably email exchanges with politicians. These provide opportunities to influence the politician’s understanding of the issues, and to identify the issues of most importance to their supporters.

Lester Milbrath
Lester Milbrath

So don’t look simply at whether a politician’s voting record demonstrates the receipt of financial support. That is the wrong place to look. Instead, look at the network of those who advise and explain the issues to them. To accomplish this, lobbyists need to develop a personal relationship with politicians, and money helps a great deal.

We’ve known this for decades but must continually remind ourselves that pundits ignore research.

References

Raymond A. Bauer, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter (1963), American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade, 1st Edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lester W. Milbrath, (1960), ‘Lobbying as a Communication Process, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(1): 32-53.

Lester W. Milbrath (1963), The Washington Lobbyists. Chicago: Rand McNally.

UNESCO’s Connecting the Dots: Options for Future Action, 3-4 March 2015

UNESCO’s CONNECTing the Dots conference will reflect on a report of UNESCO’s Internet Study, entitled ‘Keystones to foster inclusive Knowledge Societies: Access to information and knowledge, Freedom of Expression, Privacy, and Ethics on a Global Internet’. Representatives from 180 Member States will be present to present and discuss the major themes of this report. It will be held at the headquarters of UNESCO at 7, place de Fontenoy, Paris, 75007, France. As a contributor to this study and the report, I will be there to help moderate, report, and summarize the conclusions of the two-day meeting.

My policy class at the Quello Center at MSU is reading the report, and will join the live stream of the conference. I hope you will do the same. Information about live streaming of the event will be on the conference Web site, so consider joining the conversation. UNESCO’s is doing all it can do to ensure that this is truly a multistakeholder consultation on how UNESCO can contribute to fostering an inclusive, global, open and secure Internet in the coming years.  UNESCO2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

Report available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/internet_draft_study.pdf

Conference Web Site at: http://en.unesco.org/events/connecting-dots-options-future-action