On January 25, 1961—five days after he was inaugurated—President John F. Kennedy held the first live, televised press conference in American history. He spoke for nearly 40 minutes on famine in the Congo, the Soviet release of two US Air Force captains, diplomatic relations with Cuba, and even the benefits of live briefings—which Kennedy praised for “providing more direct communication” to citizens.
If you watch the video of the conference, you’ll see a young president parrying a variety of questions with relative ease, especially given that he’d just started the job. You’ll also see a few shots of cameras in the back of the State Department auditorium, capturing the conference that was viewed by an estimated 65 million people—more than half of the country’s adult population.
Here’s one thing you won’t see: Reporters’ faces.
Throughout the conference, with little exception, the cameras focused on Kennedy. While you could hear reporters’ questions, you couldn’t see who was posing them. That changed in later JFK press briefings, but for the inaugural conference, viewers had little idea who—other than Kennedy—was speaking.
Last week, I wrote about Trump’s latest press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and her penchant for deflecting difficult questions and offering unrelated, sometimes inaccurate responses as a way to undermine the entire process. A few hours after the column went live, there was another McEnany briefing, which included this question from Politico reporter Ryan Lizza:
There’s a national conversation going on right now about the proper place of symbols of the Confederacy — statues, memorials, names — and that the President tends to repeatedly insert himself into this debate. And I think a lot of people are trying to understand what his view of memorializing the Confederacy is and the proper place for the Confederate flag.
So, a couple of questions: One, does President Trump believe that it was a good thing that the South lost the Civil War? And then, two, is he interested in following NASCAR’s example, of him banning the Confederate flag at his own events?
McEnany, who had been rifling through her notes during the first part of Lizza’s question, appeared stunned by the Civil War reference. Then, she looked at Lizza the way a schoolteacher might glare at a student who had just belched loudly during class.
Without much of a pause, McEnany responded that Lizza’s “first question is absolutely absurd. He’s proud of the United States of America.”
The second question was fair game. Given that NASCAR had recently banned Confederate symbols, Lizza was right to ask about how Trump would handle the symbol at his own rallies, where it occasionally adorns T-shirts or signs. And McEnany’s reply was a deflection to a different topic: She cited a single poll about taking down Confederate statues, even though the question was about the propriety of showing the flag at Trump events.
But in the case of the first question, McEnany was right: it was absurd—an instance of performance art, rather than a journalistic effort designed to elicit information. Even if Trump were lighting candles on the Resolute Desk to mourn Jefferson Davis’ passing, McEnany would not have publicly declared his fondness for the Confederacy.
It’s also a question that brings to mind the issue of what reporters should, and shouldn’t, do when confronting President Trump or his delegates.
At the end of last week’s column, I asked readers to tell me what they thought about these press briefings, and more than one hundred people wrote in. Some of them honed in on Lizza’s question, and on what it signified for the battle between the press and this president.
“When you get asked questions such as, ‘Does the President believe the South should have won the Civil War,’ you … get what you deserve,” wrote John Fallat, a California lawyer.
A. Craig Copetas, a longtime reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, sees it as a broader problem. “Theatrical spectacle has replaced the craft of journalism,” he wrote. Some reporters have turned into “performers, operating in a social media universe that tells them they’re not alone in the way they feel about themselves.”
Reporters have often been accused of using these briefings to flaunt their own agendas. CBS’s Dan Rather famously confronted Richard Nixon in 1974, less than five months before Nixon would become the only man to resign the presidency. “Are you running for something?” Nixon asked, to which Rather responded, “No sir, Mr. President, are you?”
And CNN’s Jim Acosta has been derided for his battles with Trump and White House press secretaries, such as when he asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to repudiate her boss’s characterization of the press as the enemy of the people. Sanders didn’t take the bait then, any more than McEnany did last week.
It’s hard to see how the public benefits from seeing reporters on camera, and it’s inevitable that the attention of the cameras affects the questions the press asks, and the way the press asks them.
Most journalism takes place outside the public view. Reporters research stories while hunched over their desks, and often conduct interviews without a camera rolling; the public usually sees only the finished product. But televised press briefings flip the script, which risks turning reporters into dramatis personae, as they compete for attention and air time.
Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, thinks that putting the camera on reporters during White House briefings incentivizes them to preen for the screen, raising their profile for the prospect of lucrative cable gigs. “Which master does it serve?” he said in a recent interview. “Am I trying to write good content for my publication or to get a contract on MSNBC?”
So, what to do? In early 2017, two former press secretaries wrote in CJR that briefings should be embargoed until they end—a quaint notion from spokesmen who did their jobs before Twitter. Recently, Becket Adams wrote in the Washington Examiner that cameras should be turned off altogether at briefings. Spicer says he tried that a few times. “Print and wire reporters said they enjoyed it,” he says. “They could ask more substantive questions. It wasn’t a food fight.” But given the power of broadcast and cable outlets, that seems unlikely.
Instead, let’s return to the format that worked for that first live televised presidential press conference, in 1961: Let the cameras roll, but limit reporters’ roles to audio. It’s hard to see how the public benefits from seeing reporters on camera, and it’s inevitable that the attention of the cameras affects the questions the press asks, and the way the press asks them.
As it happens, the C-SPAN version of Monday’s press briefing gives you a chance to see what this is like. There was a technical glitch, so C-SPAN’s camera never left McEnany for the full 23 minutes of the briefing—much like JFK’s first presidential press conference nearly six decades ago.
McEnany continued to deflect hard questions, and she ended the conference with her usual pre-programmed mic-drop shtick before walking off the stage. But the singular focus on the stage highlighted her message, flaws and all.
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