By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
Having spent all but a month of 2015 and all of 2016 outside the US, I’ve been able to shut out most of the Trump hysteria– something I imagine would be much more difficult to do if I were marooned stateside. Yet even I wasn’t able to dodge the recent contretemps over the White House’s decision to exclude the BBC, NYT, Politico, and Buzzfeed from last week’s Friday press gaggle.
Spicer Organizational Changes: Improved Media Access
So, while my ears rang with the sounds of the usual suspects wailing that the latest Trump abomination sounded the death knell for a free press, imagine my surprise to read a Columbia Journalism Review article published on the very same day of the exclusion — We analyzed two weeks of Spicer press briefings. Here’s what we learned.— lauding changes the White House Press Office has made to improve access for many media outlets.
Some of these tweaks recognize that the make-up of the media has evolved– both in the way news is produced and delivered, and in the distribution of the inherent biases of those who produce the news. Another allows in questions from flyover country that previously might never have passed through a White House presser. These actions look to be improvements from any perspective other than that of Bigfoot legacy media– accustomed as they are to being treated as primus inter pares, and by virtue of that status, to playing an outsize gatekeeping role. Let’s look at some of them.
First off, White House press secretary Sean Spicer has mixed things up a bit by calling on other than the usual suspects to ask the first questions at press briefings. The piece’s authors, Carlett Spike and Pete Vernon, write:
Following Spicer’s very first press briefing on January 21, many mainstream outlets raised concerns about the attention the press secretary gave conservative media. The first four outlets called on that day were New York Post, CBN, Univision, and Fox News. Of course, conservative outlets saw things differently. Fox News applauded Spicer’s engagement with outlets beyond the usual suspects, calling it “a really refreshing start to the Trump press policy.”
(The New York Times published a piece here in which it analyzed just how much a departure from the practice under Spicer’s predecessor, Robert Gibbs.)
What, I ask you, does it matter who gets called on first? Shouldn’t the key issue be that those called on represent, at least generally, the overall composition of the press pool? When looked at from that perspective, the new arrangements don’t appear all that bad.
Spike and Vernon found when they analyzed the first two weeks of briefings under the new system that the breakdown, by ideological slant, of outlets called on was as follows: mainstream 30%; progressive 12.5%; moderate 27.5%; and conservative 30%.
When they looked at the outlets called on by medium rather than by ideology, they found the breakdown to be as follows: broadcast 22.7%; print 27.3%; digital 34.1%; and radio 15.9%.
Second, the authors found that allowing greater prominence to conservative media didn’t mean things would be easy peasy for Trump. Why am I not surprised? Trump, after all, is not exactly anyone’s idea of a typical conservative, and there’s no reason to think that the conservative media might go particularly easy on him. Moreover, journalists get attention by breaking stories, and asking tough questions, rather than blowing air kisses. This logic applies to journalists across the ideological spectrum. From the piece:
While not every question deserves a gold star, conservative media isn’t letting Trump off the hook. One standout reporter from the briefings we analyzed is John Roberts of Fox News–who consistently asked tough questions and wasn’t afraid to challenge Spicer’s answers.
During the February 14 briefing, for example, reporters hammered Spicer with questions about Michael Flynn’s resignation. When Spicer eventually turned to Fox News, Roberts didn’t let up and asked for specifics on a possible investigation into Flynn’s actions.
Spike and Vernon also cite questions on Christian genocide posed by Townhall’s Katie Pavlich and to clarify the policy options under consideration now that Trump has put Iran “on notice” raised by The Washington Examiner’s Sarah Westwood. Both demonstrate that conservative media aren’t going especially easy on Trump.
The third innovation and to my mind most interesting innovation Spicer’s office has made is to include “Skype seats” in the briefing room. Over again to Spike and Vernon:
Perhaps the most visible change to the White House briefings under Spicer is the introduction of Skype seats, wherein journalists and commentators from around the country are beamed into the briefing room and called on to ask questions. The White House has not yet released any details of the selection process, only stating that outlets more than 50 miles outside of Washington, DC would be considered for a virtual seat. In the seven briefings we analyzed, Spicer called on 14 reporters and commentators, representing outlets from 11 states. Called on most often were journalists from Ohio and Florida, states with influential and often decisive electoral colleges.
NBC’s Chuck Todd originally proposed Skype seats to allow outlets that can’t afford to pay for a full-time Washington presence to participate in White House press briefings. The 2016 election revealed just how out of step those in the Acela corridor were from the views of voters throughout the country. What better way to make sure their concerns are addressed than to include questions from reporters who aren’t beholden to any Beltway consensus because they live and work outside the Beltway? To elaborate further:
It’s clear that many viewers feel as if the media, which is based in left-leaning coastal centers, didn’t effectively channel the voice of the electorate during the runup to the election, Todd said. The solution? Get back on the horse and tell stories about people who feel underrepresented.
“That’s the bottom line,” Todd said. “We didn’t tell the stories about folks in Macomb County. We didn’t tell the story of the coal miners in West Virginia. I think a Trump voter would say we spent a lot of time telling the story of the DREAMer that may get deported, but we don’t spend enough time telling the story of the 19-year-old in…Missouri who is addicted to opioids and has no job prospects.”
Telling those stories is essential to winning back the trust of America writ large, Todd said,
“The fact of the matter is, we have a trust problem in rural America,” Todd said.
Todd also recognized that these Skype seats could allow reporters with some substantive expertise– agriculture for example– to ask focused questions. Maybe their expertise wouldn’t be relevant at every press briefing, but allowing them to ask regular questions would mean issues that fall within their expertise would be addressed more often, as framed by reporters who know their subjects.
It’s far too soon to evaluate the record of Skype seats, as the system’s just been inaugurated. Yet so far, according to Spike and Vernon:
Some local reporters have used issues in their regions to speak to broader national problems. Josh McElveen of WMUR in New Hampshire referenced his state’s opioid crisis and “right to work” debate to question the administration’s position on the two issues, which have national implications. John Huck, a reporter with a Fox affiliate in Las Vegas, asked Spicer for assurances that the administration’s rollback of financial regulations wouldn’t leave Nevadans holding the bill. Again, it was a question based in local experience that’s of national importance.
There is of course the possibility that the process could be manipulated– by allowing in ringers planted to ask pro-administration questions, for example. But in principle, the Skype seat idea seems sound,as a means of breaking up the ossified Beltway consensus, and reminding the press and administration alike of the concerns of the many people who live in flyover country.
The White House Correspondents Dinner
I’ll close with what may on first impression seem to be lighter point. Trump has recently announced that he won’t attend this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner. The clips I’ve seen of the ultimate Nerd Prom– with it smug, insular, smarmily self-referential participants- exemplify much of what’s wrong with the relationship between the White House and the press that covers it. The only clip of the spectacle I enjoyed was in 2006, when Stephen Colbert– in character as his rightwing Colbert Report alter ego– spoke truth to then-President George W. Bush. That was a night to remember, and so I include the clip for those of you who haven’t seen it, or would like to see it again:
Now, it’s a not-so-open secret that one motivation for Trump to run for President was the mocking of his presidential ambitions at the 2011 dinner. If that’s indeed the case, those who masterminded and executed that roast have a lot to answer for.
By electing not to show up this year, Trump is performing a public service: killing off a tradition that’s well past its sell-by date, and that perpetuates an unhealthy sycophantic relationship between press and public servants.
Another Tradition Ripe for Scuppering
And speaking of unhealthy spectacles, let me here put in a plug for scuppering another custom that’s long bothered me and was brought to the front of my mind by this piece in The Spectator:
The cynical idealists of the US press corps, rebellious foot soldiers of the First Amendment, solemnly rise when the President enters the room. This, they insist, is out of respect for the office and the republican ideal.
Is it? Whenever I return to the UK, I’m immediately stuck by how much more adversarial the press is toward political officials. Tune into a BBC interview, for example, and see the refreshing lack of deference in questioning, and the more pointed follow-ups. One doesn’t get top billing at the BBC by being a craven interviewer. The attitude doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in the form of sound bite zingers, but rather in a refusal to defer reflexively to authority.
The President’s elected to do a job. The White House press corps also have a job to do– which is scrutinising, questioning, and reporting on the activities of the President and his administration. Isn’t it time to cease making this reflexive gesture of deference– or more accurately, supplication– whether it be to the office, or to the man (or perhaps someday, the woman), who occupies it?