Sean Spicer on the Press: First Week Reflections and a Four-Year Outlook

On Monday night, George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs hosted “Does Trump Need The News Media?” at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – where School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno spoke with the newly-minted White House Press Secretary of the Trump administration, Sean Spicer, as well as a panel of White House media heavy hitters.

Press Sec: The Conversation

Sean Spicer projected a conflicted message throughout his Monday Night conversation with Sesno. He indicated that he respected the media, but also implied that that he believed most media was dishonest and entitled.

Sesno asked why the Trump administration had such a hostile relationship with the press. In his reply, he spoke of “unpacking boxes” in his new West Wing office. While the article Spicer referenced mentioned him unboxing his belongings on the Saturday after inauguration, he mentioned that not a single box was in his office until Sunday afternoon.

While Spicer admitted that this detail was “petty,” it was his micro example of the macro media problem in his eyes. “The basic facts of many of these stories have unbelievable errors in them,” he said of the apparent error.

Throughout the event it became clear that in his 11 days at his White House post, Spicer has developed a complicated relationship with the press.

“The press should be skeptical. It’s healthy, it’s a part of what they do,” Spicer said at one point. This statement went along with several others expressing his understanding of the media’s importance to democracy.

Spicer’s words of vague praise for the media were often coupled with words of specific discontent, especially regarding media coverage of Trump’s inauguration day crowd size and the executive orders signed this week. He used phrases like “pathetic” and “blown out of proportion” to describe the reporting coming out of the White House on these issues.

He also noted, a few times throughout the conversation, that he thought the press has taken Trump’s initiatives since his presidency in a very unfavorable tone – saying that “the lede is always the perceived negative,” and never looks to the positives of Trump’s actions and plans.

Spicer recounted a heated exchange between himself and CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta at a Trump press conference before the inauguration, wherein Donald Trump famously called the network “fake news.” Spicer recanted his version of a conversation with Acosta. Acosta, sitting in the George Washington audience for the panel event that awaited – yelling out, “I never said that.”

Spicer’s animosity towards the White House press corps and the Washington media continued throughout the talk. He raised his voice in frustration: “I’m not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from, that they get a question that they get a seat. I don’t know where this sense of media entitlement comes from.”    

Later on, Spicer also mentioned that he thought “too many journalists have crossed the line from being reporters to becoming opinion writers.”

It wasn’t all about the media, however. Spicer dove into some self-reflection as he was entering his second week of his high-profile posting. On his fashion sense, he admitted that he now gets a lot of “fashion tips” since taking the role as Press Secretary – referring to his noticeable change from light-colored suits to dark-colored ones.

When asked by Sesno if he regretted his Day Two statement about crowd size, he replied: “I’m a forward thinker… I probably should have taken questions that day.”

He was then confronted with some of the Press Office’s mistakes throughout the first 11 days of the administration. In response, Spicer claimed that there was a “double standard” when dealing with errors that he made and the ones the press made.

When I’m up there, I’m a liar. When [the media does] it, it’s a correction at the bottom,” said Spicer. “We’re not perfect, we’re not gonna get everything right.”

De-Briefing: The Panel

The second part of the event was a panel discussion between Jim Acosta, CNN Senior White House correspondent, Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under George W. Bush; Hadas Gold, Politico media reporter; Carol Lee, Wall Street Journal’s White House correspondent; and Jeff Mason, Reuters White House correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.

The diverse group clashed over differing views of the role of media, but agreed that the media was a necessary entity.

Hadas Gold questioned how the press should proceed, citing the media’s failure in the election.

“We clearly got it wrong when it came to the election,” said Gold. She also agreed with Spicer when she mentioned that with broadcast news, it’s difficult for viewers to tell the difference between commentary and hard news.

Ari Fleischer conveyed a message which indicated that the press had lost the trust of the American people.

Fleischer showed allegedly comparable headlines from The New York Times from the most recent presidential elections. From the W. Bush-era, he read the headline: “Bush celebrates victory.” From Obama’s first inauguration, he read: “Obama: racial barrier falls after decisive victory.” He then read the headline from Trump’s inauguration, which read: “Democrats, Students and Foreign allies face the reality of a Trump Presidency.”

He then questioned how someone couldn’t think the New York Times was biased against them with evidence like this – a headline so negatively tinged in comparison to previous inaugurations. However, Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, corrected Fleischer on Twitter, noting that the former Bush press secretary had the wrong  day of coverage entirely.

The comparable headline actually read “Trump Triumphs” in bold.

Jim Acosta, who called out Spicer for “alternative facts” about statements Acosta had made, focused on the importance of the White House press to a democracy.

“We get to decide what the truth is — not we the media, we the people,” said Acosta. “We’re not in business of access journalism, we’re in the business of journalism.”

Julia Arciga contributed reporting.

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