Journalists fight the wrong battle on White House access

July 18, 2017
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, via Getty

As this piece is being written, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is standing behind the lectern in the Brady Briefing room and taking questions from the assembled press. Should you choose, you’ll hear about it, but you won’t be able to watch it.

We’re approaching the three-week mark since the administration has put a designated spokesperson on camera to spar with the press. Once the faces of the White House, Sanders and her boss, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, have disappeared from view. While it’s true that timeframe includes President Trump’s trips to Europe and the July 4 holiday, it’s now clear, if it wasn’t before, that part of the administration’s strategy includes cutting back on opportunities for its spokespeople to answer questions in full view of the nation.

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This is bad, but given the quality of those appearances—full of statements often contradictory to reality and to the president’s own words–it’s fair to ask what we’re actually losing. Let’s stipulate here that more access is preferable to less, and that on-camera briefings are preferable to audio-only sessions. But to reporters calling for more TV time for Spicer and Sanders, let me suggest an alternative: we need to hear from the president himself.

Thursday marks the six-month point of Trump’s presidency, yet he has held just one general press conference. That was on February 16, three days after Michael Flynn had been fired as National Security Adviser. Since then, Trump has taken questions at a handful of appearances with foreign heads of state, but the two-question format of those carefully managed events has not produced the sort of reckoning that a solo press conference would provide.

Trump’s camera-shy approach is a significant departure from his predecessors. By this point in their respective presidencies, according to the American Presidency Project, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton had each held eight solo press conferences, while George W. Bush held three. Even Ronald Reagan, who was shot in the chest two months into his time in office, managed to get in three press conferences by the 4th of July.

In the early months of his presidency, Trump’s lack of press conferences was somewhat offset by his appetite for one-on-one interviews. Since a May 11 sit-down with Lester Holt, however, he has almost entirely retreated to the friendly confines of Fox News, venturing only as far afield as the Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.

While reporters griping about access will never play well with a broad audience, the public deserves to hear, and see, where the administration stands. The White House has often claimed that the president is his own best messenger. But communicating through a Twitter account and campaign-style rallies doesn’t bring the American people answers to serious questions facing the nation.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.