The Trouble with Frictionless Briefings

The press has gotten the briefing back, yes, but we’ve lost privileged glimpses into the West Wing.

On July 9, the White House was staring down a major story about President Biden’s son. The day before, the Washington Post had published a piece revealing that Hunter Biden’s artwork would be sold for “prices as high as $500,000.” Officials crafted an agreement aimed at keeping the identity of the buyers confidential, including from the artist, but the situation set off ethical alarm bells, particularly because Hunter Biden became an artist only recently. As Walter Shaub, who used to run the White House Office of Government Ethics, put it to the Post: “What these people are paying for is Hunter Biden’s last name.”

So it was a bit odd when Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, took the podium for the day’s briefing and received just one question on the subject, from Weijia Jiang, of CBS News. Psaki described the sale agreement as having “quite a level of protection and transparency.” Jiang pressed on the fact that it relied on the judgment of a gallerist and asked if the White House would do anything “to work with the owner to make sure there’s not impropriety there when it is ultimately sold.” Psaki insisted that the setup was ironclad. “It would be challenging for an anonymous person who we don’t know and Hunter Biden doesn’t know to have influence—so that’s a protection,” she replied. Then she dismissed Jiang and moved on to the next reporter.

No one else in the room followed up. Psaki managed to get the story off the table quickly, limited its reach, and kept the press corps’s focus elsewhere. (At the top of her agenda that day was an economic initiative.) Ultimately, on July 21, CBS published a report revealing that the agreement had a loophole allowing Hunter Biden to meet prospective buyers at his debut show; when that piece came up in a briefing, Psaki brushed it off. The episode was a stark example of the limitations of a White House briefing in which the press operation is polished. “They came in with a sophisticated view of communications,” Martha Joynt Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group of academics, told me. Biden’s West Wing press office comprises eleven people, who have “one message that they’re going to send out,” Kumar observed; briefings are held a few times per week; the president typically makes one appearance a day. Throughout, the team sticks primarily to prepared remarks and takes few questions. (Psaki did not respond to requests for comment on this piece.)

Tight coordination means that reporters are getting detailed breakdowns of policies. The existential threat to the briefing, which was eliminated for long stretches of Donald Trump’s tenure, has passed. We have also been relieved from the barrage of lies put forth by Trump and his staff. Yet the White House press corps has lost something from the Trump years: nearly unfettered access to behind-the-scenes drama and the presidential id, through freewheeling speeches and stream-of-consciousness updates on Twitter. Biden’s highly professional press shop makes it harder for the media to penetrate the depths of the White House—internal debates, developing ideas—and to locate pressure points that can take things off script. And Kumar’s team found that, even as he restored collegiality to the podium, Biden conducted far fewer interviews during his first months in office than Trump did: nine in his first hundred days, compared with fifty-one for Trump and forty-six for Barack Obama. The press has gotten the briefing back, yes, but we’ve lost privileged glimpses into the West Wing.

 

I covered Trump from his insurgent campaign in 2015 through his time as president. That included breaking stories on infighting among his team, fact-checking him at a press conference, and reporting live from the violence that consumed Washington during his final year in office. As a White House correspondent for Yahoo News, I had claim to a coveted seat in the briefing room—at least, when briefings were held. The open fighting that took place made them unlike the briefings of other modern administrations. (An exception might be those under Richard Nixon, who built the press room over the White House swimming pool; there was a running joke that his press secretary could, at will, hit a button to open the floor and release reporters into the water.) The briefing has only existed in its present, televised form since the Clinton administration; prior to that, reporters would have short, off-air meetings with the press secretary each day to cover the basics of the president’s plans and responses to major news items. But even if the Trump era was unique in providing high drama and exciting copy, I still think briefings play a valuable role in American public life. Which is why it’s so frustrating when they fall short of their potential.

Over the summer, the White House Correspondents’ Association—which designates news organizations’ seats at the briefing, among other things—installed a new president: Steven Portnoy, of CBS News Radio. He views briefings “as an important demonstration to the world that a representative of the American president will submit herself on a daily basis to an independent free press to take questions.” For Portnoy, the “mission for this year is the continued return to normalcy.”

The virtue of “normalcy,” however, depends on the vantage of the beholder. Under Biden, many news organizations have seen their ratings and online traffic drop precipitously; the briefing has gone from must-see TV to often not being aired live. The WHCA has chided the president for holding fewer press conferences than his predecessors, but the organization, which represents a broad constituency, has historically seen its role as simply maintaining access. It’s done little to seize the opportunity, under a new administration, to fundamentally change the nature of engagement with the West Wing or create venues for substantive conversation with the president.

Portnoy, who is forty, doesn’t plan on shaking up the status quo. “I think the fact that we are present to ask the press secretary questions and that she’s present to take and respond to them is the essence of what we do and what we’ve always done,” he said. Correspondents in the traditional mold, as he is, care more about being in the room to get sound bites on top-line news—they risked their lives for it during the pandemic—than about springing surprise questions on officials. “For my journalism, the briefings provide a benefit,” Portnoy said.

Absent a collective push for more, individual reporters are left to their own devices to get answers from West Wing sources. Shirish Dáte, a veteran White House correspondent with HuffPost, considers briefings of limited use to journalists outside television and radio. “Look at what airs—it’s the back-and-forth between a particular broadcast person and the mouthpiece of the administration,” he said. “I don’t care about that. I really don’t, and if I really need a question answered, I know how to get it answered, you know, from other people.” In 2019, fearing that the press wasn’t sending enough of a unified message to combat the Trump administration’s lies and attacks, Dáte campaigned to lead the WHCA. He lost that race; under Biden, he doesn’t plan to run again. As he told me: “While we beat reporters may not think the briefings are that important, the rest of the world watches it.”

 

During the Trump years, journalists in the briefing would have aggressively followed up if a colleague’s question were prematurely dismissed; when reporters kept mum on Psaki’s speedy dispatch of Jiang, they failed to use the strength of the room in the service of transparency. That’s not to suggest that journalists impose a false equivalence—Trump’s tenure was singularly destructive and corrupt, and culminated in an act of unprecedented violence that he fomented—but we should be able to maximize the value of the briefing by piercing a press secretary’s protective shell.

This spring, I left my post at Yahoo to launch a newsletter called The Uprising. In June, I became the first solo Substack writer to be granted a pass providing access to White House briefings and press events. In my new gig, I have a chance to pursue coverage with a real sense of independence. (There is also a physical difference, since the pass I’ve been issued doesn’t get me a chair; my coverage of briefings comes from the standing-room-only section.) From that position, my hope is to focus on stories that may be under-covered or that have fallen out of the mainstream news cycle, rather than follow the churn of world events or wait for the press secretary to serve up a daily message.

For me and more conventional outlets alike, it’s crucial to recognize that we can only deliver on behalf of the public if we’re forcefully challenging the White House. The press corps learned to be more combative in the Trump era. We can’t lose that friction now.

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Hunter Walker produces a Substack newsletter called The Uprising. Previously, he was the White House correspondent for Yahoo! News.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Kevin Whipple