The Media Today

Tensions boil over in White House Briefing Room

June 15, 2018

Since taking over as Press Secretary last summer, Sarah Sanders has faced difficult questions on a number of thorny issues: the Russia investigation, the administration’s handling of the Rob Porter scandal, the president’s truthfulness. She has proved more adept than her predecessor at dodging and obfuscating while avoiding the sort of open hostilities that characterized Sean Spicer’s time behind the lectern. But Thursday, after weeks of building tension, frustrations among reporters boiled over.

Pressed by CNN’s Jim Acosta on the administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the border, Sanders at one point shot back, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess, but please don’t take my words out of context.” A reporter in the room could be heard yelling from off-camera “That’s a cheap shot, Sarah.”

ICYMI: 11 images that show how the Trump administration is failing at photography

Minutes later, Sanders stuck to her argument that the government was just enforcing the law, even as CBS News’s Paula Reid pointed out that the administration made the decision to move border-crossing prosecutions from civil to criminal court. Brian Karem, the executive editor of Sentinel Newspapers and a columnist for Playboy, interrupted the proceedings, yelling out, “Come on, Sarah. You’re a parent. Don’t you have any empathy for what these people are going through?”

The heated exchanges come after weeks of growing frustration among reporters who cover the White House. Sanders has repeatedly refused to address her statement last summer that President Trump was not involved in dictating a false statement concerning his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer officials at Trump Tower, leading to concerns about her credibility. The number and length of briefings has also been a point of contention.

As the most visible face of the White House, Sanders is often put in the difficult position of translating Trump’s tweets, attempting to explain contradictory statements, and defending the administration’s actions. It’s not an easy job, but it is the one she signed up for. While White House reporters have given Sanders credit for being conciliatory than her predecessor, the past few weeks have shown that journalists seem to have had enough with her refusal to honestly answer repeated questions on important issues.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

According to a Wednesday report by CBS News, Sanders won’t be the target of those frustrations much longer. Jacqueline Alemany reported that Sanders plans to leave her post by the end of the year. When asked yesterday about that story, Sanders didn’t deny its factual basis, though she did blame the network for running a piece without talking to her directly. That was another dodge: As CBS wrote in its follow-up story, “CBS News called and emailed Sanders requesting comment before publishing Wednesday’s report. Sanders did not respond.”

ICYMI: Meet the journalism student who found out she won a Pulitzer in class

Below, more on the tension between the press secretary and the press:

  • Increasing strain: Writing on the escalating tensions between Sanders and reporters, Politico’s Jason Schwartz has a concise summary of Thursday’s briefing: “Press members tussled with Sanders over immigration issues, she insulted the intelligence of one reporter, and another interrupted the proceedings with a dramatic outburst.”
  • A new low: Referencing a February column she wrote proclaiming “a new low” for Sanders’s performance as press secretary, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, “today was worse.
  • A window into the administration: Never let anyone tell you that White House briefings are pointless,” writes The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple in covering Thursday’s exchanges.


Other notable stories

  • The Mirror Awards, which recognize reporting on the media industry, were handed out yesterday. (Full list of winners here.) Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain won “Best Story on Sexual Misconduct in the Media Industry” for their Washington Post reporting about Charlie Rose, and Cameron gave a powerful acceptance speech. Via Deadline, here’s part of it:

    There’s a temptation to think the last few months have been about individual men, that it was about a handful of bad apples and if we get rid of them it will end the cycle of harassment and abuse. But it’s not true. The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation. It has publicists. It has a perfectly reasonable explanation about what happened. It has powerful friends that will ask if it’s really worth ruining the career of a good man based on what one women says, what four women say, what 35 women say. Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others. The system is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.

  • Rob Rogers, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist for more than two decades, says he has been fired from the paper. Last week for CJR, Kim Lyons reported on Rogers’s recent battles with management, which had refused to run his cartoons over the past month, many of which were critical of President Trump. “A political cartoonist is meant to be provocative, and is meant to cover people in power and keep those people accountable,” Rogers told Lyons.
  • CPJ announced its 2018 International Press Freedom Award winners, honoring journalists from Sudan, Ukraine, Venezuela, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The Investigative Fund named its 2018 Ida B. Wells Fellows; congrats to Taylor Eldridge, Rebecca Rivas, Isma’il Kushkush, and Zahra Hirji.
  • “Newsrooms have traditionally dealt with suicide in one of two ways,” writes Meg Kissinger for CJR. “They either blow them out of proportion, focusing on gory details, or they ignore them altogether.” This binary approach, Kissinger argues, needs to change. She calls for journalists to be more aggressive in their coverage of suicide, taking into account broader context. “When we ignore stories about a public health crisis, we allow it to fester,” she writes.
  • After the Justice Department said it would not appeal this week’s ruling, AT&T announced Thursday that it had completed its $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner. CNN’s David Goldman covers what the deal means for consumers.

ICYMI: Don’t shrug away Trump’s media attacks

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