The White House news briefing, after emerging as a can’t-miss ritual of the early days of the Trump administration, has in recent weeks become shorter, less informative and less accessible, with some of the briefings declared off-limits to live broadcasting.
Those whose job it is to cover the White House are not pleased.
“We believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media,” the White House Correspondents’ Association president, Jeff Mason of Reuters, wrote in a memo to members on Friday. “We are not satisfied with the current state of play, and we will work hard to change it.”
Hours later, it was clear that any negotiations remained a work in progress.
For the third time this week, the White House prohibited news organizations from airing the briefing, which has traditionally been televised, and requested that audio recordings be withheld from broadcast until the question-and-answer session had concluded.
The major television networks acquiesced, though not without some grumbling. CNN, which has emerged as a particularly vocal critic of the no-broadcast rules, went so far as to send a courtroom sketch artist to the briefing room, who created an illustration of the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, addressing reporters.Continue reading the main story
“It’s great for us to come out here and have a substantive discussion about policies,” Mr. Spicer said at the lectern, when asked why Friday’s briefing had been taken off-camera. “I don’t think that the be-all and end-all is whether it’s on television or not.”
Off-camera briefings have occurred under previous presidents, often parceled out among regular televised sessions with the press secretary. But these days, there is little trust between reporters and President Trump’s communications office, which has exacerbated the typical jockeying for access.
Mr. Spicer, after initially attracting big television audiences several times a week, has cut back; there are now fewer televised briefings, with fewer questions addressed at each. The White House argues that reporters take advantage of the briefings to showboat for the cameras. Reporters say the press secretary does not want to be captured on video dodging tough questions, or committing a gaffe that could irk Mr. Trump, an avid viewer of the briefings.
The drop-off in briefings, though, is indisputable. During June, the White House has held an average of one televised briefing per week, down from several each week in previous months.
Off-camera briefings “are not a substitute for the open back-and-forth between reporters and administration officials that regular televised briefings allow,” Mr. Mason wrote in his memo on Friday, noting “the need for transparency at the highest levels of government.”
White House correspondents acknowledge that the briefings can sometimes have limited value as a reporting tool. But they say it remains important for an administration to discuss its actions and its policy in a public forum — even if the ritual has long been an opportunity for aides to spin and obfuscate on behalf of their presidents.
The notion of reducing television coverage of the briefings is not unique to the current administration. Michael D. McCurry, who was the press secretary during the Clinton administration, has said he regretted allowing cameras into the briefings, saying the temptation for reporters to grandstand has eroded the quality of the sessions.
Mr. Spicer and his colleagues have been more closelipped than their predecessors, often saying they simply do not know Mr. Trump’s thinking on an issue, or that they have not had a chance to ask him. Among the subjects that Mr. Trump has apparently not discussed with his senior press aides: whether he believes that Russia interfered in last year’s election, and whether climate change is a hoax.
Mr. Mason met this week with Mr. Spicer and his chief deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in an effort to outline journalists’ concerns. It is common for White House aides and journalists to engage in private negotiations over access and terms of coverage, a conversation that often includes the Correspondents’ Association and a representative of the major television networks.
So far, news organizations appear to be following the White House rules, if reluctantly.
At the start of Friday’s briefing, the website of “PBS NewsHour” began streaming live audio of Mr. Spicer, even as cable news networks held off. A PBS spokesman said a representative of the television networks notified the network that the broadcast rules for the briefing had changed, and that live audio was no longer allowed.
After about six minutes, PBS cut off its feed.Continue reading the main story