Covering Donald Trump White House will 'pose a challenge for the media,' outgoing press secretary says

While Obama's relationship with the White House press corps was not cordial, covering Donald Trump will 'pose a challenge for the media,' says outgoing press secretary Josh Earnest.

Outgoing press secretary says covering Donald Trump will 'pose a challenge for the media'

Outgoing press secretary Josh Earnest said the relationship between President Barack Obama and the White House press corps 'wasn't cordial.' (CBC)

This week's incendiary news conference in New York that showcased an angry Donald Trump and a room full of often just as angry journalists demonstrated how toxic the relationship already is between the media and the man who hasn't even officially begun the job of president yet.

The contrast with outgoing President Barack Obama, often noted for his statesman-like temperament, might never have seemed sharper. Which can make it easy to forget that the relationship between the Obama administration and the media was also often deeply mistrustful.

Investigators with Diana Swain - Josh Earnest Interview

6 years ago
Duration 4:47
Diana speaks with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the Obama administration's relationship with the press. Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET (replays Sundays at 5:30 pm ET) on CBC News Network.

Many journalists will remember the departing administration as one that aggressively went after whistleblowers and journalists to try to crack down on government leaks of information. Nine times it pursued prosecutions against alleged whistleblowers, and in the process tried to get journalists to reveal their sources. That's more than all previous administrations combined.

So then did the Obama administration really set the tone for the unprecedented level of acrimony that exists now between the White House and the press corps?

The Investigators with Diana Swain - Journalism and the White House

6 years ago
Duration 22:26
The Investigators from Washington: How journalists covered explosive allegations involving Donald Trump. Plus, Diana speaks with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the Obama administration's relationship with the press. Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET (replays Sundays at 5:30 pm ET) on CBC News Network

As the person who engaged daily with the media on the president's behalf for the past 2½ years, outgoing press secretary Josh Earnest sat down this week in Washington to talk about that question, and why he believes trying to get along with reporters might be in Trump's best interest as president.

Below is an excerpt of the interview airing on The Investigators with Diana Swain. 

The Investigators with Diana Swain

The interview with outgoing White House press secretary Josh Earnest can be seen on this week's episode of The Investigators, which airs on CBC News Network on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET, and on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET. 

DIANA SWAIN: Based on your experience in dealing with reporters here, what did you think of what you saw this week in the way that the president-elect and his people dealt with the media?

JOSH EARNEST: I think what we saw this week is actually pretty consistent with their relationship with the media throughout the campaign, which is that there was a … certainly different style of engagement than we've had with the press corps. And it's going to pose a challenge for the media. So the important work that the media has to do to hold people in power accountable, to demand access, to demand transparency, to demand accountability… is something that they're going to have to do in a different way now too. 

DS: But does it matter if there's no longer a cordial relationship here? What's lost for him?

JE: I think it matters. And look, the relationship between, certainly, between this White House and the White House press corps that covers us every day, wasn't cordial. Reporters are always supposed to be demanding more access and more transparency. So the day that there isn't some friction between the White House press corps and the White House is the day that somebody in the press corps is not doing their job.

But what I have tried to do, as the White House press secretary, is to manage that relationship in a way that that friction doesn't prevent anybody on other side from doing their job. That was the role of the press secretary, and my successor will have to do the same thing.

The Obama administration aggressively went after whistleblowers and journalists to try to crack down on government leaks of information. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

DS: And there were moments of friction between the media and this administration … members of the media saying that the administration went after whistleblowers —

JE: Yeah.

DS: — went after journalists who were trying to protect their sources —

JE: That's right, that's right.

DS: Would it be fair to say that that tone of some animosity there was set by this administration, if it continues?

JE: I don't think that's fair. Because I think time and time again this administration, and this president, repeatedly demonstrated respect for the media. There's plenty of criticism that the media had for the way this administration handled our business, and yes, that did relate to some of the prosecutions of people who were leaking classified information.

Now what's also true is that many of those prosecutions were begun in the previous administration. And the people who were being prosecuted were being prosecuted because they had signed an oath to protect national security information that was critical to our national security.

DS: But journalists would argue that's still their job. They get the information, they need to share it.

JE: It is. And that's why we've also made clear from the Department of Justice, including in writing, that journalists are not going to be punished or imprisoned just because they're doing their job. But there are people who work in the government that have signed an oath ... and people need to be held accountable for that.

But what is true is that despite our differences, we have succeeded in engaging with the White House press corps in a way that has ensured that the president is held accountable, that reporters are given a venue where they can demand that accountability and they can demand transparency. That has served our government, that's served our democracy well. It's also served the president well. Because it's given him a venue where he can come out and make his case to the White House press corps and to the American public, about the wisdom of his approach. And … look, I think the president's standing in the polls right now are a pretty good validation of the strategy that we've pursued.


Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.