Media Twitter is a place rife with ritualistic, throat-clearing arguments about The Press’ Role in Democracy. Recently, sharing whether the coming White House press briefing is on or off-camera has become a daily practice of some of its most high-profile inhabitants.
The last on-camera news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room was on June 29, and roughly three-fourths of briefings since June 1 have likewise taken place without the cameras rolling. There’s no sign that the cameras will ever return. It appears that the White House is putting this fixture of political reporting out of its sad, end-state misery, and that it’s decisively triumphed in its battle with a White House press corps that has demanded it turn the cameras on while doing virtually nothing to try to make that happen.
We’ll put aside, for a moment, that such ground rules are typically negotiated by two parties. You may wonder why the giants of Washington journalism don’t simply turn their cameras on in response to this supposed directive from on high. Well, access journalism is the dominant form practiced in Washington. Upset the White House press shop, the thinking goes, and you’re out. Your competitors will benefit. It’s a classic collective-action problem, which is why the media’s response to off-camera briefings has been so flaccid, indignant tweets and periodic pushback notwithstanding.
CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta took to sharing photos of his socks in an apparently un-ironic protest to off-camera briefings last month, but things haven’t gotten much rowdier than that, and the White House Correspondents Association, tasked with representing the interests of the press corps, has responded with little more than weakness.
Reuters reporter Jeff Mason, the outgoing president of the WHCA, addressed the idea of turning on the briefing room cameras in an interview on Democratic bro-fest Pod Save America on Monday:
Those decisions are decisions that would have to be made by individual news organizations. If the TV networks, for example, all decide that they are not going to abide by the guidelines set by the White House, that’s their decision. That’s not a WHCA decision....You also have to keep in mind the ramifications—doing that would have a direct impact for television reporters and radio reporters, but it would also potentially affect print reporters who attend those briefings and use the content whether it’s televised or not.
“Content” is an ideal word for this situation. Since White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer first stood behind the lectern in late January, press briefings have served to obscure, rather than illuminate, what’s going on in the Trump administration. When not lying directly to reporters, he and his PR acolytes either take questions from Trump-friendly outlets—which is their right—or respond with any variant of, “I haven’t discussed that with the president.”
From a journalistic sense, their words and appearances on camera are fairly useless. But they are content. And in a media culture still beholden to maintaining the mythical appearance of objectivity, that content is king.
The White House press corps essentially allows this nonsensical state of affairs to continue by refusing to turn on the cameras. Since all they’re doing is giving in, the White House has won. And their protests of reduced access will continue to fall on deaf ears until they actually cover politics in a way that matters to people’s lives.