Since George E. Akerson became the first official White House Press Secretary in 1929, under Herbert Hoover, the nation’s media has had a direct line to Office of the President, most notably in the form of press briefings. Usually mundane events, freshman Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s briefings have become an unexpected spectacle of the Trump administration–already inspiring plentiful memes and SNL skits. The briefings, much like Trump’s presidency, are often hostile; while they make news, it’s often for what Spicer doesn’t give reporters, rather than what he does.
Much of the attention paid to these briefings has rightfully been focused on answers–or a lack thereof–from the administration. But a lot can be gleaned by examining the questions, and who’s asking them. CJR analyzed transcripts and video from two weeks’ worth of *press briefings (of which there were seven), from January 31 (when the transcripts first became available) to February 14. We looked at questions asked, topics covered, and outlets called upon to see what we could learn from these early briefings. Here’s what we found:
Mainstream outlets are, in fact, called on
Following Spicer’s very first press briefing on January 21, many mainstream outlets raised concerns about the attention the press secretary gave conservative media. The first four outlets called on that day were New York Post, CBN, Univision, and Fox News. Of course, conservative outlets saw things differently. Fox News applauded Spicer’s engagement with outlets beyond the usual suspects, calling it “a really refreshing start to the Trump press policy.” To demonstrate the break from tradition, The New York Times mapped out the briefing room seating chart and compared outlets Spicer called on to those called on by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs under Barack Obama.
What we found, however, is that the mainstream media still got a chance to ask questions at every briefing we analyzed. In some cases, mainstream outlets were even selected to ask first questions.
To give a sense of who’s being called on,we grouped outlets in the graphics below by ideological slant and by medium.
When it comes to ideologies, outlets from across the spectrum are called on, and in fairly equal measure.
Outlets called on, by ideological slant
When it comes to medium–print, digital, broadcast, and radio–each type of outlet is represented, with digital media notable coming out on top.
Outlets called on, by medium
Conservative media is tough on Trump
While not every question deserves a gold star, conservative media isn’t letting Trump off the hook. One standout reporter from the briefings we analyzed is John Roberts of Fox News–who consistently asked tough questions and wasn’t afraid to challenge Spicer’s answers.
During the February 14 briefing, for example, reporters hammered Spicer with questions about Michael Flynn’s resignation. When Spicer eventually turned to Fox News, Roberts didn’t let up and asked for specifics on a possible investigation into Flynn’s actions. When Spicer started to dodge again, Roberts pushed, saying, “I understand. I’m speaking to the actual evidence, that the FBI has transcripts of these intercepts, which I assume were done by the NSA via a FISA Court order. Was there any communication between the White House Counsel’s Office and the FBI?” It’s the kind of steadfast questioning that resists the bounds of partisanship.
Here’s another thoughtful question posed by conservative media, asked by Townhall’s Katie Pavlich:
“Today, President Trump talked about Christian genocide at the National Prayer Breakfast, and last year the Obama State Department officially declared a genocide by ISIS against Christians and other minority and religious groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Now that Rex Tillerson has been sworn in as the Secretary, what specifically is the administration planning to do to comply with the legal obligations of protecting these groups under the UN 1948 Treaty?”
And this question asked by Sarah Westwood from The Washington Examiner: “The President and his national security advisor have been clear the administration wants to put Iran “on notice,” but they haven’t specified what that is. What options are on the table? And are there any options, like military action, that might be off the table at this point?”
If Trump and his team expected conservative outlets to be a relief from mainstream media pressure, they were wrong.
Skype seats loom large, with mixed results
Perhaps the most visible change to the White House briefings under Spicer is the introduction of Skype seats, wherein journalists and commentators from around the country are beamed into the briefing room and called on to ask questions. The White House has not yet released any details of the selection process, only stating that outlets more than 50 miles outside of Washington, DC would be considered for a virtual seat. In the seven briefings we analyzed, Spicer called on 14 reporters and commentators, representing outlets from 11 states. Called on most often were journalists from Ohio and Florida, states with influential and often decisive electoral colleges.
Skype seats called on, by state
Also notable is the percentage of broadcast outlets called on by Spicer, accounting for nearly 65 percent of all Skype seats.
Skype seats called on, by medium
The intention behind the initiative, which was originally floated by NBC’s Chuck Todd, is a good one. By opening up briefings to reporters from outlets that can’t afford to permanently base a correspondent in DC, Spicer can hear questions that move the conversation beyond the Beltway. Results so far have been mixed.
Some local reporters have used issues in their regions to speak to broader national problems. Josh McElveen of WMUR in New Hampshire referenced his state’s opioid crisis and “right to work” debate to question the administration’s position on the two issues, which have national implications. John Huck, a reporter with a Fox affiliate in Las Vegas, asked Spicer for assurances that the administration’s rollback of financial regulations wouldn’t leave Nevadans holding the bill. Again, it was a question based in local experience that’s of national importance.
Still, for every solid, issues-oriented Skype seat question, there has been another one that begins with “Commander Spicer, it’s a pleasure,” and ends with “Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people?” That question came from Portland, Oregon-based conservative radio host Lars Larson, and showcases the problem with including pundits and ideologues among the serious reporters who have been given the chance to join the briefing.
Spicer has taken questions from the monitors at four of his briefings, and there’s plenty of time to improve the process. If the White House communications team doubles down on local reporters and cuts the talk radio bloviators, the Skype seat innovation will be worth keeping around.
Controversies drive coverage
In the first weeks of his administration, President Trump met in Washington with four foreign leaders and spoke with dozens more over the phone. He also authorized a raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a US servicemember and several Yemeni civilians. All of this took place against intense speculation about Trump’s relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and doubts about the administration’s commitment to the Iran nuclear deal.
As would be expected with any new administration, Spicer’s early briefings have been consumed with questions on impending legislation and changes to American foreign policy. Also unsurprisingly, when Trump announced Neil Gorsuch as his Supreme Court nomination on January 31, questions on the pick flooded the conversation. But much of Spicer’s time has been spent answering questions of a less typical nature, as reporters have pressed him on Trump’s controversial travel ban, the actions of now-former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and reports of disorder within the West Wing. As a result, other important topics, like health care, unifying the country, and race relations, fall by the wayside.
Questions by topic
* All transcripts were obtained directly from the White House website. Not included in this survey were remarks from Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who spoke and took questions at the beginning of the February 14 briefing.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the president who hired George Akerson as the first White House press secretary.Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon are the authors of this piece. Spike is a CJR contributor and Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow.