The Media Today

The daily White House press briefing is dead. Does it matter?

September 21, 2018

Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House briefings have become scarce. Over June, July, and August, Sanders held just 13. When she does speak to the press, she is adept at deflecting without losing her cool, and consistently fails to provide transparent, honest explanations for administration policies—according to ABC News, this summer she spent fewer than four hours fielding reporters’ questions. The only briefing so far this month was on September 10.

For some, the dwindling number of briefings is no problem. Plenty of critics, myself included, have grown weary of the constant dissembling. Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, has been arguing since the beginning of the Trump administration that news outlets would be better off “sending the interns” to cover briefings. Others have argued that, with cameras rolling, reporters spend more time grandstanding than pressing administration officials on substance.

Daily—or near-daily—on-camera briefings are a relatively new feature of White House communications efforts. They became the norm during the Clinton administration, and press secretaries under Presidents Bush and Obama continued the tradition. Still, Olivier Knox, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the briefing “has both a symbolic and a substantive importance to the White House press corps.” It shows, Knox said, “that the most powerful political institution in American life is not above being questioned.”

RELATED: The White House credibility crisis starts at the top

That symbolism—the visible evidence that the administration accepts challenges from the press—matters. President Trump may be generally open to answering a few questions at pool sprays or strolls to Marine One, but in those instances he’s free to pick which questions to answer or to ignore reporters altogether. Sanders doesn’t have that luxury.

The briefing is often a maddening exercise in convoluted explanations, repeated denials, and “I’ll-have-to-get-back-to-you’s,” but its existence is a testament to the idea that no one is above having to explain themselves. That makes it worth saving.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on the disappearing White House press briefing.

  • Fighting for access The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports that the WHCA has pushed the administration for more briefings, but has made little headway with those requests. Wemple notes that, even when Sanders has held briefings, they’ve been much shorter than those overseen by previous press secretaries.
  • A possible fix: Before Trump took office, former press secretaries Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer argued that the briefing format was due for an update. For CJR, they suggested that the daily briefing continue, but that it no longer be a live televised event.
  • “Trump’s battering ram”: The New Yorker’s Paige Williams profiled Sarah Sanders. “Sanders often appears to mistake journalism for stenography or cheerleading—she sometimes tells the media what to “celebrate,” such as the state of the economy,” Williams writes. “Sometimes, when confronted with the fact that reporting is often adversarial, she reflexively mentions courtesy, seemingly not understanding that journalism is an exercise in democracy, not etiquette.


Other notable stories:

  • Disney CEO Bob Iger sits down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Matthew Belloni to discuss “his plan for a Netflix rival, ESPN’s politics problem and how #MeToo has changed his company.”
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram examines whether the podcast bubble is bursting. Recent announcements from Panoply and BuzzFeed News have raised concerns among audio fans that the financial foundation of medium may not be quite as solid as they hoped. Podcasting isn’t dying, Ingram writes, it just “requires an investment of time and money to do well, something that not every media company has a lot of right now.”
  • I missed this yesterday, but ESPN’s Rachel Nichols was outstanding in her aggressive interview with Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban. An NBA report found that Cuban oversaw an organizational culture where sexual harassment and misconduct repeatedly went unpunished.
  • Whether Christine Blasey Ford will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week remains an open question. Ford’s lawyers wrote a letter to the committee saying that she “would be prepared to testify next week” if the senators offer her “terms that are fair and which ensure her safety,” CNN reports. She will not, however, agree to appear on Monday, the date that committee chairman Chuck Grassley had offered.
  • CNN’s Brian Stelter examines President Trump’s false claim that NBC “got caught fudging” tape of the interview that Trump gave to Lester Holt just after firing James Comey. The interview has become a focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice.
  • Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sat down with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum to criticize the since-corrected New York Times story that incorrectly blamed her for costly purchase of new curtains for the ambassador’s residence. “I appreciate the retraction but that story follows you everywhere you go,” Haley said.
  • For CJR, Jacob Goldberg reports that the recent sentencing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar has left Burmese journalists “grasping for guidance on how to proceed without risking their freedom.

ICYMI: How not to tackle the attempted returns of disgraced men

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