The White House Correspondents Dinner is this weekend, meaning it’s time for The Politico to drop its annual magazine issue about the media. The edition is meant to give an insider’s view of an insider’s profession, and any such package in 2018 wouldn’t truly be complete without a long human-interest feature on what the site calls “the face of the most duplicitous press operation in White House history,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Sanders’ dry condescension in the service of feigned unawareness, clear obfuscation, and outright lies is familiar by now. This cocktail has great appeal within the West Wing, and Politico’s Jason Schwartz reports that the press secretary wields increasing influence with her boss:
Sanders possesses a unique talent that, heretofore, has not quite been considered a talent: She can deaden a room. You almost have to be in the White House briefing room, a claustrophobic space packed tight with reporters and photographers, to appreciate her art. When the bright lights are on and the cameras are snapping and everyone is yelling, “Sarah! Sarah!” with their hands in the air, a palpable electricity flows through it. The moment Sanders unleashes her trademark monotone, the energy drains.
It’s a properly theatrical description, and anyone who’s had the displeasure of tuning into one of Sanders’ briefings knows it to be accurate. But does the uncanny talent to refute clear evidence make Sanders good or bad at her job? It depends on how you approach the question, and the divergent answers point to how the Washington press corps is losing its battle with the Trump administration’s top spin doctor.
On the one hand, there are plenty of signs the national media is holding the White House accountable despite Sanders’ daily charade. The New York Times, Washington Post, and others are raking in financial returns on their investments in hard-hitting political coverage. The battle for scoops between outlets has intensified; Trump has made journalism great again. The president’s historically low approval ratings are proof that he is no great media manipulator.
But there are also signs that Trump, Sanders, and the rest of the gang have effectively segregated this journalistic revival. On Thursday, a Quinnipiac poll suggested that 51 percent of Republicans think the “news media” is the enemy of the American people, while just 37 percent see it as an important part of democracy. Nearly a third of independent respondents, meanwhile, said they trust Trump to tell the truth about important issues more than the media. It’s not that Sanders and the White House press shop must convince such voters that Trump is right and CNN is wrong. They just need to introduce a bit of confusion into the mix.
Which leads us back to Sanders’ job performance behind the podium. The anonymous White House correspondents reached by Politico say that the press secretary’s testy exchanges with reporters on camera belie her more cordial relationships behind the scenes. “It’s different than the show, what you see on TV,” one said. The press secretary’s schizophrenic good-cop, bad-cop routine apparently contrasts with that of her bruising predecessor, Sean Spicer (emphasis mine throughout):
Sanders immediately brought a sense of order to a press shop that had been under siege, and she dialed down the temperature in the briefing room. One White House reporter assessed the transition from Spicer behind the podium to Sanders like this: “She’s a calm, competent professional. She may lie, but she’s just a lot more unflappable and calm when she’s doing it.”
“She doesn’t seem to have the angst that he had about it,” the reporter added.
What better symbol is there of the press corps’ enfeeblement? It’s comforting to learn that collegiality has been restored to the White House campaign to mislead the public, and that Sanders is at least polite as she gradually wears down everyone’s capacity to care about big lies, little lies, and everything in between. From Politico:
“There’s almost sometimes an exhaustion writing the stories of the daily briefing because the number of things [Sanders] says that are patently false are too many to let your story be weighed down with them,” one White House reporter says.
This, folks, is the whole ballgame: The White House’s chosen messenger to America and the world is so wrong, so often, that it’s getting ever more difficult to keep calling her out. For all the media chest-thumping about the prestige that comes with reporting on an historic presidency, Sanders’ erratic press briefings continue to be must-see TV. The confusion she introduces to the world is an unfortunate side-effect of political reporting today. As Steve Bannon crystallized it to Bloomberg in February: “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
By that metric, Sanders is winning. And when jokes are made at her expense at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night, I’m sure she, too, will be laughing.