Is it time to switch off the daily White House press briefing?

The importance (or lack thereof) of the daily White House press briefing has been fiercely debated over the past few weeks — the result of the Trump administration's decision to move toward shorter, less frequent briefings, before taking some of them off-camera completely.

From shorter to fewer to off-camera, the 'gaggle' seems to be dying slow death under Trump; some say that's OK

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on reporters during a briefing in early June. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Send the interns.

That's the advice media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen gives Washington journalists on his blog, PressThink, when it comes to the daily White House press briefing.

"Forget the briefing," he writes. "It is already gone, killed by the president's approach to politics."

Veteran Washington reporter Mike Allen went a step further on his site, Axios: "Quit going."

The daily White House briefings were pretty useless — even before Trump, Allen says. "It's low-grade propaganda at best, and full-blown BS at worst."

The importance — or lack thereof — of the daily press briefing has been fiercely debated over the past few weeks, a result of the White House's decision to move toward shorter, less frequent briefings — before taking some of them off-camera completely.

It's prompted outrage from the press corps, especially from cable television networks, who have regularly been carrying them live since Donald Trump took office, often to ratings greater than daytime soap operas.  

Last week, CNN instead sent a court sketch artist to a briefing, broadcasting the comic-like images of press secretary Sean Spicer alongside the audio of his remarks.

"What we are typically used to in this town in terms of covering the White House, covering this government — that is being eroded right away in front of our very eyes," Jim Acosta, CNN's senior White House correspondent, lamented on air.

History of the press corps

This could all be written off as reporters whining about themselves; a navel-gazing distraction from the legitimate news of the day. The White House has justified its decision as a way to focus on policy — and a way to reduce reporter grandstanding.

"There's a lot of them who want to become YouTube stars, and ask some snarky question that has been asked eight times," Spicer told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham last week.

But to dismiss the exercise as some sort of theatre ignores Washington's long tradition of regular access to the White House.

A recent move to take some White House press briefings off-camera has prompted outrage from Washington's press corps, especially from the cable television networks, which often carry them live. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Reporters began the practice in 1890s. During his time in office, Theodore Roosevelt would chat with journalists during his afternoon shave. And in 1902, reporters got an office in the West Wing. The Nixon administration built the current briefing room, putting it overtop of what used to be the White House swimming pool.

White House Correspondents' Association president Jeff Mason calls the daily briefing a tradition worth preserving. "It's in the interest of transparency to have reporters ask questions of the highest levels of government," he said. "And that's what we do in this room."

The audio-only edict isn't the only shift the Trump administration has made when it comes to its interaction with the media.

When foreign leaders come to visit, Trump has often held the customary joint news conference. But questions are limited to two per country and come from pre-chosen reporters. Sometimes he skips them altogether. At recent Rose Garden events with both the Indian prime minister and the South Korean president, leaders gave statements but took no questions.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a reporter's question during a joint news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. During conferences with other world leaders, Trump usually takes four questions: two from U.S. media and two from foreign media. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

And both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis have been criticized for not speaking to reporters as much as their predecessors.

Earlier this year, Trump also bowed out of the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner — the first president to have skipped the event since 1981, when Ronald Reagan missed it while recuperating from a gunshot wound.

And that's before you consider the regular attacks his administration has thrown at the mainstream media, dismissing stories as "fake news" and reporters as Hollywood liberals.

Or, to quote the president himself, as "the enemy of the people."

Window into the White House?

Yet the daily briefing does have value as a tool for understanding; it's a window into what the president believes and how he behaves.

Take this past Thursday, when deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was responding to questions about Trump's Twitter tirade against MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski.

That morning, the president had referred to Brzezinski as "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and claimed "she was bleeding badly from a face-lift" during a visit to Mar-a-Lago. The comments were widely criticized as sexist and unpresidential — even by Republicans.

But Huckabee Sanders defended Trump, her tone incredulous, as she blamed the media for provoking the president. "The American people elected somebody who's tough, who is smart and who is a fighter. It's Donald Trump. And I don't think it's a surprise to anybody that he fights fire with fire."

'These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong,' says White House press secretary Sean Spicer 1:19

The podium has also showcased the administration's loose relationship with facts. In his very first press briefing, Sean Spicer insisted the crowd for Trump's inauguration was the largest to ever witness an inauguration — something that was quickly proven false.

Spicer has also defended the president's unproven claims that former president Barack Obama used U.K. intelligence to wiretap Trump Tower, repeated Trump's assertion that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election illegally, and dramatically understated the role of Trump's campaign chair Paul Manafort in last year's race as "very limited" as scrutiny over his Russia ties heated up.

Collectively, all of these moments are revealing. And so it makes sense that Washington's reporters want to keep the briefings frequent, open, and televised.

But it still might not be in their best interest. Rosen argues all those testy exchanges simply provide the White House with more opportunities to put down the media.

It's almost as though by doing their jobs — pressing hard, asking tough questions and hammering for answers — the White House press corps is playing right into the narrative the Trump administration sells to its core supporters: The liberal media is only out to take down the president.

"Stop volunteering as a hate object," concludes Rosen, encouraging reporters to develop sources and find stories outside the briefing room.

Many are.

About the Author

Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior Washington editor

Lyndsay Duncombe is the senior Washington editor at CBC News. She co-ordinates coverage of U.S. politics for all platforms and has worked as a producer, reporter and anchor at CBC since 2001.


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