Donald Trump has an idea:
Another threatened attack on press freedom, from a president who detests the free press? Sure. But also: Would this be bad? Or is this one of those occasional moments when Trump stumbles maliciously into a completely defensible position?
The White House press briefing does not serve the public or the White House. It is a pointless farce, and we owe Donald Trump—and especially Sean Spicer, his incompetent and comical press secretary—our gratitude for making clear the extent of its pointlessness. Press briefings under Spicer have become must-watch programming purely because of their sheer ridiculousness. A room full of people who know the man answering their questions cannot possibly truthfully answer their questions makes for great TV, but it does not make for meaningful coverage of this White House.
This is not particular to the Trump era. The pointlessness is baked into the entire enterprise. At the daily press briefing, the White House press secretary delivers prepared remarks, and then takes questions that he or she can only answer with prepared responses. Reporters ask anodyne questions or aggressive ones, and sometimes argue with the press secretary, and try (nearly always unsuccessfully) to bait him or her into admitting some deception or half-truth. But why? To catch a press secretary in a lie is a weightless imitation of accountability—congrats, a person with no actual power has admitted to spinning you.
Why fight to preserve this institution? How does it benefit the country?
In January, longtime White House correspondent George E. Condon attempted to bust “Five myths about the White House press corps” for The Washington Post. The first myth was that the daily press briefing is a “waste of time.” This is the best Condon could come up with, when called upon to explain the importance of the press briefing:
But it is still vital to a democracy that a representative of the president present himself every day. Everyone benefits when the government has to face that daily ordeal. It was at a White House briefing that Press Secretary Ron Ziegler on April 17, 1973 was forced to backtrack on months of Watergate evasions and declare his previous statements “inoperative.” It was at White House briefings that press secretaries for George W. Bush had to try to explain why no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And it was at White House briefings that Jay Carney was forced to explain the problems with the healthcare.gov website.
None of these examples are at all convincing, and certainly none of them justify describing the press briefing as “vital to democracy.” Mostly they seem to equate reporting on the White House, and uncovering scandalous information, with getting lied to on TV by a White House surrogate who bore no responsibility for the scandal in question. What did Jay Carney actually know about the federal contracting process that led to the broken healthcare.gov website, and what did pestering him about it reveal to the nation? There certainly were a lot of questions for George W. Bush’s press secretaries about Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction—and the press secretaries could not answer any of those questions, because they were not the people who had decided to use them to sell the war.
The problem is that the press secretary “speaks for” the White House only in the narrowest sense. He cannot answer for the true decision-makers, he can only reveal what those decision-makers have authorized him to say. Knowing what the White House has authorized its spokesperson to say is useful, of course, but it’s much less useful than access to the people who do the authorizing. Presidents should be expected to regularly face the press, along with the people in their administrations who are actually responsible for making decisions. The fact that we currently have no norm requiring them to do so with any regularity makes the press briefing-by-dumb-lackey alternative seem even more insulting.
What would we lose if we lost the daily press briefing? Mainly, we’d lose a daily opportunity to see reporters look heroic while badgering a dimwit. Meanwhile, the members of the White House press corps who are actually reporters, as opposed to television or radio personalities, would gain some time to go out and do actual reporting.
Obviously Trump is threatening to end briefings for a bad and evil reason—because he’s a thin-skinned, authoritarian-minded baby, who wants to threaten the press into being nicer to him—and if he does go through with it, the briefings won’t be replaced by anything better or more useful, but there’s still not much point in getting alarmed at the threat. (We also know Trump won’t go through with it, because it’d be like canceling his own favorite daytime show.) Of all the useful reporting on this White House that has happened, none of it happened during a press briefing, and ending the briefings won’t stop any of it.
White House correspondents ought to welcome the end of the press briefing. In fact, they ought to boycott the briefings entirely, until the communications office replaces them with regular, on-the-record briefings from administration officials who actually have power, and who can actually be held accountable for what they say, including the president himself.
I would not hold my breath waiting for them to do that.