Why the media is so worked up over televised briefings

And why Trump's war with the media will never end

Cameras are pointed at Sean Spicer during an off-camera briefing on June 26.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Every White House has an antagonistic relationship with the media. Members of the White House press corps, as well as reporters on national and international beats, have lots of incentive to get tough on administration officials, and the White House press office has lots of incentive to make reporters' jobs as tough as possible.

Still, it's difficult to recall an atmosphere as tense as we've seen during the first six months of the Trump administration.

Over the last couple of weeks, the media has berated the White House for refusing to televise press briefings. Before Tuesday's televised briefing, there had been only two televised briefings in two weeks. And several days saw no briefing at all, prompting howls of outrage from several media outlets.

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Jim Acosta, CNN's White House correspondent, has become the most outspoken member of the press corps on this issue. He began openly complaining about the White House's handling of the media in early February after President Trump only took two questions, both from conservative media outlets, during his joint presser with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The fix is in," Acosta declared, just a little over three weeks into the new administration.

However, Acosta is hardly alone in complaining about the lack of televised briefings, and of briefings in general, over the past few weeks. White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason met with Press Secretary Sean Spicer late last week to protest the changes and to urge a return to the previous status quo. "We are not satisfied with the current state-of-play, and we will work hard to change it," Mason said after the meeting, adding that Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders "agreed to consider" Mason's request.

The New York Times reported on that effort, as well as grumbling from other members of the press corps, but The Washington Post reported this week that grumbling is all that's happened — at least so far. No media outlets or reporters have opted out of the non-televised briefings. "Despite the administration's unusual and increasing opacity, the reaction from reporters has been relatively muted," Paul Farhi wrote, but "there are signs, however, that reporters may be gradually finding their backbones."

If so, that will likely suit everyone involved.

President Trump's contempt for the media is hardly a shock. He campaigned in part by attacking the national news media as hopelessly biased, both against him and the voters who see mainstream media coverage as demeaning or dismissive. Even if going to war with the media creates collateral damage to the administration along the way, the ongoing fight will play very well with Trump supporters, and more broadly with Republicans who have long-standing gripes with media bias. Having Acosta and other reporters continually attack Trump plays into the White House's hands as an affirmation of bias, no matter how justified the criticism might be.

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Recent cases of media failures don't hurt the White House position, either. CNN had to retract a story on the Russian-collusion investigation after getting hung out to dry using a single anonymous source, and the reporter and two editors involved resigned. CNN had to put significant restrictions on future reporting on the topic, and other media outlets may need to take a closer look at their own performance on a speculative story that has yet to deliver after several months.

For the media, though, this war with the White House serves a purpose, too. First, the loss of the televised briefings does affect their ability not just to deliver transparency to viewers, but also to promote their personnel in the press corps. They have a significant stake in getting the briefings back on TV. The fight also allows reporters to argue even further that the media should take an adversarial role with politicians to hold them accountable, and that anything less than full transparency is a danger to an informed public. It gives them an opportunity to paint themselves as the front line in the fight for democracy.

So who's right? To some extent, everyone is. If televised briefings make for hot-dogging from some reporters (as Spicer accused Acosta of doing), it also allows for immediate and long-lasting transparency on what transpires. Even if not every briefing needs to be televised — a trend that only began during the Clinton administration, as CBS reporter Mark Knoller pointed out — there should be a briefing each day, as what transpires at the White House is important enough to merit it. Accountability in self-government is a must, even if it takes the form of pen-and-paper reporting rather than YouTube clips on social media.

In the long run, though, it is in the White House's best interest to televise the proceedings, as it offers them an opportunity to shape the news cycle each day and to directly rebut any immediate media narrative. Spicer plans to move out of the press secretary role and focus on overall communications strategies, and he's reportedly speaking to potential candidates for the podium. They may do well to find a replacement with significant credibility within the media — someone who can act more as a bridge between the White House and the press corps in order to more expertly navigate the waters. If used properly, televised briefings can be an asset for the press and the White House alike.

But in the larger media war, neither side has much reason to cooperate — and so we can expect this particular battle to continue for the foreseeable future.

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