“Shampoo the carpets, take the sheets off the chandeliers!” Those words, emailed around by a pool reporter and shared on Twitter by the BBC’s Jon Sopel, announced to the White House press corps that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, President Trump’s press secretary, would hold a rare on-camera briefing yesterday—her first in 41 days.
Since the heady days of Sean Spicer, record crowd sizes, banned cameras, and Skype drop-ins, the on-camera White House press briefing has become critically endangered, if not extinct. According to The New York Times’s Karen Yourish and Jasmine C. Lee, the monthly frequency of briefings has tailed off sharply since last summer, leaving 2018’s monthly average the lowest of any year since the Clinton administration routinized televised briefings in the 1990s. Last week, Hogan Gidley, the White House spokesman apparently known to Trump as “Hogan Tidley,” told Fox that regular briefings aren’t necessary because reporters have frequent access to the president. But past administrations haven’t treated the briefing as just a top-up. And later in the day, Trump publicly undercut Gidley, tweeting that he’d told Sanders “not to bother” going to the podium because “the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately.”
It was thus a surprise when Sanders did emerge yesterday, telling the assembled press corps she’d “missed you guys.” Whether the public had missed her is open to question. High-profile critics such as Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU, and Mike Allen, the co-founder of Axios, have argued since the early days of this administration that the briefing isn’t worth serious journalists’ time. Last week, Bloomberg’s Joshua Green echoed that sentiment on Real Time With Bill Maher: “What’s the point?” Green asked. “Sarah Sanders will get out and lie to journalists. There really isn’t any value.”
True to form, Sanders used yesterday’s briefing to stonewall on the shutdown, Roger Stone, and more, and take digs at reporters. “I never thought I’d be shutting down one reporter to go to Jim Acosta,” she smirked at one point.
“Since I know so little about this, let me ask you a couple of questions and maybe I can educate myself,” Fox’s John Roberts, who is not currently in Trump’s good books, said. “At least we’re in agreement on something,” Sanders replied. After a pause, she smiled and said, “Joke.” Roberts deadpanned a laugh. Ironically, Fox was the only cable network to carry the briefing live. MSNBC and CNN both stuck with scheduled programming.
As Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, told the Times, the Trump administration has tended to use the briefing “to promote the president and his agenda rather than as a medium where reporters establish the subjects under discussion and call upon the White House to answer to the American public on topics of their choosing.” Nonetheless, Kumar told NPR late last year that the briefing is “an important forum for the public, and we shouldn’t let it go.” While the information on offer is rarely reliable, the briefing has remained a precious opportunity for reporters from smaller outlets to put their questions to power, and for reporters from bigger outlets to pose questions on a broad range of important topics. Yesterday, for example, The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey pressed Sanders hard on why Trump, the immigration hardliner, had consistently employed undocumented immigrants in his businesses.
Yes, briefings often descend into unhelpful showboating and bluster, on both sides of the podium. When it comes to reporting on the White House, it is neither the only, nor the most important, spigot in town. But the White House press briefing isn’t like a Trump TV address or rally, where falsehoods spew forth unchallenged. Instead, it is an opportunity to hold power to account, and we shouldn’t urge it out of existence. As Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, told CNN last year, the briefing “symbolically shows that the most powerful political institution in American life is not above being questioned.”
Below, more on the information flow from the White House:
- Improv Olympics: While formal briefings have slowed to a trickle, Sanders and other officials still frequently step outside the White House to talk to Fox News. When they do, other outlets race to get footage and lob in questions of their own, the Post’s Erik Wemple reports.
- A lesson from Germany: For CJR, Christoph Droesser writes that in Germany, journalists, not politicians, host press briefings and set the rules.
- Whit’s end: Sanders’s briefing yesterday was overshadowed by a subsequent presser with Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general, who laid out severe charges against Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, and said Robert Mueller’s investigation is “close to being completed.”
- Game on: The White House confirmed that Trump will deliver the State of the Union address next Tuesday, February 5. It had originally been scheduled for tonight, but Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, rescinded her invitation to Trump until the shutdown was resolved. This weekend, meanwhile, Trump will follow a tradition he snubbed last year and tape a Super Bowl Sunday interview. CBS’s Margaret Brennan will host.
- The Sims card: Less to the president’s liking, today sees the release of two explosive books: Team of Vipers, a damning insider account by Cliff Sims, a former White House aide, and Let Me Finish by Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who was ousted as head of Trump’s transition team by his longtime nemesis, Jared Kushner. According to Politico’s Daniel Lippman, Trump is “very pissed off” about Sims’s book, in particular. Sims and Christie both went on Morning Joe today.
Other notable stories:
- Last August, Facebook executives urged ProPublica to pull an ad-transparency tool that allows users on the platform to see how and why political advertisers are targeting them. Now Facebook has unilaterally changed its code to block that tool and others like it. ProPublica’s Jeremy B. Merrill and Ariana Tobin run through the details. Facebook said on Monday it would expand its own ad-transparency efforts worldwide.
- Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister who recently became vice president of global affairs and communications at Facebook, told the BBC’s Amol Rajan that it’s no longer sustainable for tech giants to push back on any and all attempts to regulate them. Following Clegg’s appointment back in October, I profiled him for CJR.
- CNN looked at the Pentagon’s efforts to target “deepfakes”—fabricated audio and video clips which look and sound convincingly real, and could be used either to spread lies or to undermine trust in legitimate information. “The release of the Access Hollywood tape in the late stages of the 2016 campaign was one of the few times Donald Trump has ever apologized,” lead reporter Donie O’Sullivan writes. “But Trump may soon have ‘fake audio’ and ‘fake video’ to add to his cries of ‘fake news.’”
- CJR’s Mathew Ingram recaps the heated recent debate over Twitter’s journalistic usefulness, which sparked last week following Farhad Manjoo’s “Never Tweet” advice in the Times. “Do we have to choose sides in this debate—whether Twitter is inherently bad or inherently good?” Ingram asks. “Not really. In fact, the urge to unquestioningly accept one ‘hot take’ over the other is probably one of the negative aspects of a Twitter discussion about any reasonably complicated subject.”
- As BuzzFeed continued to lay off employees around the world yesterday, surviving and former staffers piled pressure on management to reimburse laid-off employees for accrued paid time off—a public letter racked up over 400 signatures, while Isaac Fitzgerald called the situation “embarrassing and absurd” on BuzzFeed’s daily Twitter show, AM2DM, which he anchors. Last night, BuzzFeed changed course, confirming that all departing employees would be paid back and not just those in California, where it’s the law.
- BuzzFeed’s national desk, which was eliminated on Friday, published its final story yesterday. Tyler Kingkade reported from an Indiana high school where administrators blocked a student journalist from covering specific assault charges against a classmate, as well as the broader topic of sexual misconduct on campus. In the #MeToo era, image-conscious schools across the country have increasingly censored student media, Kingkade found.
- Mother Jones’s Tim Murphy looks back at Beto O’Rourke’s brief stint as publisher of Stanton Street, an alt-weekly in El Paso, Texas. “The lifespan of the publication, from its inception as an online-only magazine to its 15-issue run in print, coincided with a period of transformation and turmoil, both in El Paso and in O’Rourke’s own life,” Murphy writes, “and it offered its young publisher a crash course in city politics and community-building.”
- And for CJR, Alison Langley checks in with Republik, a news startup in Switzerland that crowdfunded $2.4 million in less than two weeks in 2017. Faced with disappointing subscription renewal numbers this month, Republik published an interactive tool to show readers how editors would have to respond if their budgets were cut. By January 23, renewal rates had jumped to 59 percent, Langley writes.