Hail to the Chief? Scuppering White House Press Corps Traditions

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?

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  1. Pavel

    When I think of the WHCD I recall two absolutely obscene “jokes” by two psychopath presidents:

    1) GWB “joking” about not being able to find Saddam’s WMD

    2) Obama “joking” about killing prospective suitors of his daughters with drones

    Between those jokes and the incestuousness of the DC elite who attend, best to put that godawful event out of its misery.

    1. EndOfTheWorld

      Right, the event, which I never paid any attention to, was marked by psychotic over-the-top hubris.

  2. Ivy

    How far would scuppering displays of reflexive deference go across different gatherings? For example, court attendees hear the familiar “All Rise” or similar notice prior to entry of a judge into a courtroom. Many people support respect for the office and the position, if not the person, and would welcome greater mutual respect by all parties to honor decorum that may foster greater objectivity and quest for truth.

  3. RUKidding

    Good points, and thanks for the info about what’s really happening with Spicer’s Press briefings. It’s very unclear what the issues really are during the Spicer-led press briefings. Has Spicer really shut down journalists without a good reason, as has been depicted? I simply don’t know.

    I, for one, would be very happy to see the Nerd Prom go away. I’ve always been very uneasy about it and what it’s allegedly supposed to accomplish. I think it’s all a bit too cozy for words.

    My understanding is that the dinner is meant to raise money for scholarships for deserving journalism students. If that’s the case, why not just have an annual fund-raiser without the sycophantic and often not all that funny dining experience?

  4. dontknowitall

    The Nerd Prom as RUKidding so wonderfully puts it is the outward display of affection between our co-opted japanese style White House press-club brought up on a steady diet of access journalism, anonymous sources and Georgetown lawn parties and politicians who know they don’t have much to fear from because the press won’t go too hard on them. Now the press broke the unspoken covenant by treating Trump very disrespectfully for a couple of years running ( does he deserve to be treated so considering the press kissed incompetents George Bush II and Hillary’s rear ends ? Where is Trump’s Abu Ghraib ? ).

    So this could be a long dry spell for them and they may have to actually work for a living since stenography is not going to pay the bills. Mistaken as Trump may be in many things, the death of the Nerd Prom is another Trump accomplishment, together with the sudden death of TPP, that warms my heart*. Trump, innocent in the ways of Washington as some in the press believe, is keeping things very interesting.

    * I’m not considering here if any of his other ‘policies’ are any good. Right now they are just noise not laws…

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I believe “nerd prom” is from Atrios. Usually, any thing vaguely clever sounding on the liberal lefty side of the Internet was gifted to us by Atrios. “Krugthullu”, DFHs, Friedman Units are all his.

  5. Roger Smith

    This article would be a lot more effective if it was acted out by a famous liberal comedian.

    But seriously, great work as usual JLS! I had no idea about Spicer’s tweaks.

  6. Clive

    With the usual caution about being the view of an outsider, The White House Correspondents Dinner always struck me as among the worst examples of access journalism I’d ever seen, and I spent a fair amount of time in Japan. That Dinner tradition was much more more cloying than anything I’d come across in Japan. It deserves to die.

  7. L

    I think the problem in this case, as with many things in Trumplandia is that there is the good mixed with the horrific.

    On the good side I agree the Skype seats in principle. You (and as much as it pains me to say it Chuck Todd) are right that they open up the gate and allow for a much more diverse question Pool. Provided the seats are handed out evenly and the questions are not pre-screened that will be great. It if gets used like James Gannon however it will be a real problem.

    As to skipping Nerd Prom? Who could care less. The fact that this is even being treated like news is itself telling.

    On the other hand the fact that they insist on anonymous sourcing then Trump slams it, alongside his cries of “Fake News” or worse “Enemies of the American People” is terrifying. At the least it presents a picture of a White House that is out of sync, or one where the President considers anyone who disagrees with him to be the enemy is a problem if only because it frames an us vs. them distinction that lends itself to worse excesses than a few ruffled egos.

    Likewise his recent promise of a “crackdown” on this at CPAC may have been pandering to the base or it may have been serious. Either way, it does not bode well.


    End the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

    It would be a great gesture toward reform — perhaps symbolic in the Pope Francis mode — if the correspondents’ dinner were simply ended, or maybe turned into a more modest affair without the lobbyists, politicians, celebrities and headliners. Money spent now on cocktail parties and other luxuries could be directed to the White House Correspondents’ Association scholarship fund. A gesture like that might restore a bit of the credibility that’s been lost.

  9. optimader

    Trump taking a page from Warren Harding and not attending. Good for him
    I wonder what Calvin Coolidge’s self deprecating “skit” was in 1924?

      1. witters

        A comparison is a comparison. It is apt or not, inept or not. It is not meant to be reassuring or otherwise. Reassurance is something else.

  10. Sordo

    Can anyone provide a relatively contemporary piece of satire superior to the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner? I recently watched it again with a friend who had missed it. That is pure fun.

  11. optimader

    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.

    You are obviously a sophisticated person so the use of the term marooned puzzles me.

    Do you feel when in the United States you are somehow trapped here against your will and desire to be someplace else? Short of someone under indictment, in prison or possibly a unescorted minor, I cant think of anyone being forced to live here against their will. I therefore interpret it as being subtly slighting toward people that do choose to lives here. Maybe I am getting it wrong?

    As well, as a sophisticated person, I am very confident that you could pretty easily control your media consumption, as I choose to do to avoid or at least minimize this sort of hyperbolic political ephemera . Other than when it’s MY CHOICE to read about “Trump hysteria” for my own amusement, I can honestly say I am not having too hard a time controlling my exposure.

    1. Yves Smith

      Huh? I happen to spend most of my time working alone so I can control my input a fair bit. But when I go out, I am barraged with Other People’s Opinions. I do go to a gym, and CNN, Fox, or MSNBC are always on. In airports, you can’t escape CNN or Fox. If you are at all social (and Jerri is much more social than I am, and lives in NYC when not abroad, and her crowd is lawyers, which means in the US very heavy on Clinton loyalists), she would be getting a big dose of newz filtered through the people in her circle’s biases and neuroses.

      1. Optimader

        At Airports, which i unfortunately do frequent, you will find me usually doing one of three things 1.) walking the terminal with earbuds listening to recorded books or music, 2.) sitting at an empty gate doing the same or 3.) sitting at an empty gate reading or processing email. –Traveling tip: empty gates are the closest thing to islands of solitude at airports (ideally pick a seat with an electrical outlet and keep an eye on the time.) I would stab myself in the eye before I would watch talking head TV at the airport maybe the weather but thats about it– ok the fork, thats hyperbole., but I would read a day old USA Today before watching the likes of CNN.

        Personally in my social circle most who I know who were(are?) HRC supporters are veeery circumspect about bringing up the subject of Trump-(Clinton) other than the occasional opposition barb usually stated as a rhetorical. “Well, whats he going to do about….?” . As a matter of fact, I am usually the one to bring up the subject of Trump derangement syndrome in social settings after a drink or two just to get some flavor of the alternate universe.
        That said, i absolutely agree much, if not a very large and adgitated % of MSM, both Domestic (and from what I can tell International), –and all the asshat public personalities/”entertainers” (File under:The Oscars), political snd government operatives that are given MSM attention– were in the bag for Clinton, and have gone out on the ledge to try and destroy Trump at all cost. Much of this will play out as incremental depreciation of their credibility.

        Admittedly the hysteria exists, but I feel my exposure is more weighted in contexr to the reaction to it/ analysis of it. Does it affect my quality of life while I am “Marooned” in the US, which is most of the time lately? I’ll have to say it’s pretty far down the list. I’ll also observe IMO it is playing directly to the advantage of cultivating Trump’s populism.

    2. Foppe

      I don’t quite follow your logic. Being “forced” to live somewhere is basically never the reason why people stay somewhere — they stay because they’re integrated in local networks, because of family, availability of infrastructure, work, scenery, etc.. (And keep in mind that liberals and -tarians use the same argument to shut down any/all criticism of wage slavery, employment contracts, etc.)
      So as Yves points to, it all depends on whether someone’s willing and able to make a relevant trade-off.

      As for your other ‘question’: Even if that were her state of mind, why would it be a reason for you to take offense at her for stating it? All it indicates is that she doesn’t enjoy being ‘stateside’ particularly much, at this point in her life (I imagine that’s part of the reason why she’s traveling). But is one only allowed to be in the US if one enjoys being there without qualifications?
      Taking it as a “subtle slight” (given that you identify as “someone who chooses to live here”) is one possible response to her expression of frustration at — presumably mostly, as Yves indicates — her social circle. It is not the only, or the “most true” way, or whatever.

  12. Ken

    The last paragraph of this essay reveals that the author mistakenly believes that the “job” of the press is to reveal truth. It isn’t. The writers and talking heads are told what to write or say by their superiors, and they do. Until sensible people such as the author understand that fundamental truth, this kind of logical analysis is pointless (no offense intended, but you’re missing the forest.)

  13. Altandmain

    I’m not very sympathetic to the mainstream media’s press core at the White House at all.

    They’ve been little more than stenographer’s for the wealthy Establishment for decades now. No journalistic integrity – they prefer to be the rich Pravda machine.

    Not saying Trump’s picks are any good – he will get the press companies that are loyal to him, but I cannot help but feel that this changes nothing at this point.

  14. Eclair

    Regarding ‘reflexive gestures of deference,’ I have been struck in the past few years how systemically deferential residents of our small city are to our city officials. The moment they are elected, people begin to verbally bow before them, no longer calling them by their first name (as they have done all their lives), but addressing them as ‘councilman/woman.’ And, if they are elected mayor, the bows become even lower. And, the title of mayor is essentially, ‘first councilperson;’ it is not an elected office.

    The ‘council chamber’ is arranged so that the council members sit on a raised dias above the citizens; citizens must sign up to ‘approach’ the dias, and are limited to a certain number of minutes in which to speak. I have watched as members of city government are rude, condescending and dismissive towards their neighbors.

    For a Republic, we have become increasingly tolerant of subservience to ‘authority,’ even when that authority lives next door to us and is dependent on our votes.

  15. Hemang

    US media? Permit me a short laughter please. The US media has always been about Hail to the Chief, the Chief can be either the Official or the media owner. Propaganda wine of Edward Bernays was bottled in 1928. News will be killed at the very moment it is produced in the market place; everything else is advertising. The bluff of the US media was called by the poor American people voting Trump even as 98 out of the top 100 media outlets kept endorsing his opponent. A family dog walking between two wheels of the cart of a villager thinks that the cart is moving because of it-An Indian proverb. One sees an entire zoo full of thousands of little Digital Media dogs pretending to be different from their cousin between the cart wheels. The only complaint one has against the US media is that it is so so boring.

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