The White House Press Briefings Need an Upgrade

Trump waged a war on the media and truth is getting caught in the crossfire. The first step to mending the wounds of this war is to reduce hostilities at the epicenter of it all: the White House briefing room.

The briefing format needs to be altered. To reduce the tension between the media and the president, it should no longer be a live broadcast, access to the administration should be expanded through the use of technology in the briefings and more topic-specific briefings should be added in addition to the general daily briefing.

The press briefings are known for their longstanding traditions, such as seating assignments and which order outlets get to ask their questions.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has started to make some changes to these traditions, including giving the first question to the New York Post rather than the Associated Press. But the White House has also had discussions about more significant changes, like moving the briefing room out of the West Wing.

Journalists fear that these variations are just the beginning of future changes that would limit their access to the Trump administration and prevent them from doing their job.

Conversely, Trump has accused the media of covering him unfairly and consistently discredits their journalistic integrity. President Trump and his advisor Steve Bannon have even referred to the media as an opposition party.

Trump claims that the media is out to get him – and this claim is not completely unfounded. The Shorenstein Center conducted a study on the election coverage of both the candidates from the 2016 election and found that Trump’s coverage during the general election was overwhelmingly negative, at 77 percent.

In a panel discussion on the Trump media environment at The George Washington University, the press secretary for President George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, pointed to several examples of different journalists describing Trump’s RNC speech in a negative light.

“Chuck Todd reported that, ‘it was extraordinarily dark’ of NBC; Scott Pelley of CBS said, ‘it was vengeful”; George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, ‘it painted a dark picture of America.”

“Report the offensive things he [Trump] says and report the good things he does, but stop telling the American people what conclusions to reach. We don’t need the press to think for us,” said Fleischer.

Both parties definitely have something to work on, and a good place to start is the briefings.

Fleischer and Mike McCurry, the press secretary for President Bill Clinton, jointly wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review with suggestions for both the Trump administration and the press on how to navigate this media environment. The article revolved mainly around how to lower the temperature in the briefings to produce a more successful relationship between the two.

The first suggestion they made was to close the briefings rather than broadcasting them live. “Too much of the briefing today is a game of “gotcha” and “what did the president do wrong?” A better model would focus on facts and substance,” they write.

Because the press briefings are live, they have become more of a show, focused on one-upping the other rather than asking substantive questions. Taking away the live component would remove the pressure from both parties to appear strong and hostile towards the other.

The briefing would not be kept secret from the public but would be released after the briefing is finished.

Before the panel discussion at George Washington, Frank Sesno interviewed Sean Spicer to discuss his strategies as press secretary as well as the ongoing controversy between the White House and CNN.

“I get it that everyone thinks they are entitled to a question,” Spicer said. “We did two background briefings this weekend and CNN was represented at both meetings. I am not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from where they get a question and get a seat.”

Spicer was touching on a sentiment that legacy media organizations like CNN, NBC and The New York Times, to name a few, feel entitled to have access to the administration more so than other news organizations.

While this entitlement may exist, the briefing room is crowded with reporters. People are standing along the walls of the briefing room anxious to get ask a question. Other reporters outside of the mainstream media deserve to get their questions answered too.

“I get that everybody wants something but I think we have been extremely generous with our time and access,” continued Spicer.

“While some 750 reporters are credentialed to cover the White House, there are only 49 seats in the briefing room, almost all assigned to the legacy mainstream media that dominated coverage in the 1990s. It’s time to democratize the room and let others in,” wrote McCurry and Fleischer.

McCurry and Fleischer’s suggestion for democratizing the briefing room is to have different days for different types of beats and publications. For example, on Monday the current White House press corps would be briefed, on Tuesday the business press would be briefed and on Wednesday the foreign press would be briefed, etc.

Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association, in the panel discussion said that this suggestion, “fundamentally misunderstands what the press corps is doing.” He postured what would happen if on Tuesday, when the business journalists are being briefed, North Korea launches a missile. He asks, “Do you want that to be the business journalists’ stories?”

Sesno said reporters that are there every day have “institutional knowledge” of what is going on in the administration. It is important that the journalists whose job is to analyze and question the actions of the administration be given the opportunity to question it every day.

Another way to expand access to the administration is to integrate technology into the briefings, which Spicer has started to do.

Spicer introduced Skype seats, which allow reporters who are 50 miles or more away from Washington D.C. to join the briefing via Skype. Expanding this feature to more than four people would greatly democratize the briefings.

Additionally, instead of rotating the briefings as Fleischer and McCurry suggested, the White House could offer two briefings during the day. The first briefing would be for the press corps and the second briefing would be rotating for beat journalists.

This would be made possible and much easier if Spicer was not the communications director and the press secretary. Hiring someone to be the press secretary solely and an additional person to do the second briefings would give more journalists the more access they desire.

The Internet has given opportunity for more news organizations to develop which necessitate a bigger communications operation in the White House.

Briefings need to evolve with the media environment and the Internet age. The animosity between both the Presidency and the press is not unfounded but cannot continue. To quell this animosity, both parties must be more careful with the truth and change their traditions in the briefing as a start.

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