The Daily Briefing: How a Must-See Show Went Dark

The Daily Briefing: How a Must-See Show Went Dark
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The Daily Briefing: How a Must-See Show Went Dark
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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It was a circus the last time Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered questions in the White House briefing room. Hands shot up. Voices were raised. A younger gentleman in a blue blazer hung from the lectern with one hand, clutched his credentials with the other, and literally whooped at the top of his lungs.

If the uncivilized gaggle had any excuse, it was that most of the participants hadn’t yet graduated from elementary school. The press secretary was answering questions from kids, the children of members of the White House press corps. What kind of ice cream does President Trump like? (Chocolate and vanilla.) Does he have a favorite dinosaur? (Sander wasn’t sure.) Why are the children of illegal immigrants being separated from their parents at the southern border? (Sanders said her boss wanted “to keep families together.”)

Plenty of other questions were asked. None of the replies were recorded for posterity on an official transcript. Even on Take Your Kid to Work Day, the White House insisted that the rambunctious back-and-forth remain off the record. But toward the end, an adult journalist from the Associated Press interrupted, “Sarah, when will you brief the real reporters?”

She didn’t answer. And the spokeswoman hasn’t answered a single question in the briefing room since.

The last of the daily briefings was so long ago that a layer of dust has settled on the press secretary’s lectern, making it look like a long-forgotten museum relic. Administration allies don’t mind, arguing that the hiatus has allowed for a lessening of media hysteria. Critics complain that the break reduces transparency, that it creates dangerous gaps in public knowledge. Either way, it’s never been like this before.

Since Richard Nixon remodeled the swimming pool in the West Wing into a permanent workplace for the White House press, there have been briefings almost daily. 

Mike McCurry defended President Bill Clinton from inquiries about extracurricular intern activities in the Oval Office. Ari Fleischer did the same for his boss, George W. Bush, when weapons of mass destruction weren’t turning up after the Iraq invasion. Jay Carney faced the music when the press corps demanded to know what Barack Obama was doing during the Benghazi attack.

The current president also sent his press secretaries to meet and brief the press. First, Sean Spicer. Later, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Then, nothing. Reporters, Trump tweeted in January, were behaving too badly and the briefing wasn’t worth the trouble:

“The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press,” Trump wrote. “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!”

Although the briefing has been cut from the news diet since March, Sanders holds impromptu mini-press conferences in the White House driveway after appearing on Fox News. Cabinet members do the same, clarifying the president’s position on everything from steel tariffs to regime change in South America. 

But little gaggles aren’t enough, Olivier Knox told RealClearPolitics. Reporters would like to come back inside and out of the elements (which occasionally means rain), the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association explained.

“The briefing helps to clear what I’d call ‘the underbrush of news’ -- things you might not ask the president of the United States but are still important to doing your job,” Knox said. “And having a set time and place for a Q and A,” he continued, “helps smaller news outlets that have a tougher time getting their emails returned and can’t camp at the White House on the off-chance of a driveway gaggle, weather permitting.”

The absence of a briefing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is only the most visible problem. Reporters covering the State Department and the Pentagon aren’t getting their answers on camera either. Altogether, Knox argued, it amounts to “a wholesale retreat from venues in which officials have traditionally taken questions in a show of accountability.”

Antagonism and Irrelevance

This White House has little sympathy for those complaints and enjoys telling reporters that Trump is the most accessible president in modern history. He spills his innermost thoughts on Twitter. He invites reporters into the Oval Office when meeting with foreign dignitaries. He makes his helicopter pilots wait while he shouts answers on the South Lawn over the engine roar of Marine One.

A talkative Trump has eclipsed a scripted press secretary in many ways, Spicer told RCP, noting that “the job of the spokesperson is to speak in the absence of the principal, in this case when the president is not available.”

As press secretary for the first six months of Trump’s term, Spicer briefed an antagonistic press regularly and paid for it by enduring public insults from a critical president as well as the president’s enemies. Away from the White House for nearly two years now, Spicer wonders whether his old role may have outlived its usefulness.

Trump, he notes, has always been comfortable in front of the cameras and prefers to do things himself. “If you can hear straight from [the president’s] mouth, you don’t need another spokesman,” Spicer said in a remarkable admission from a man who once held the job most coveted by communications staffers.

Because they know the stress that comes with it, those who have held the position enjoy a rare bipartisan fraternity. Each bequeaths the same bulletproof vest to his or her successor as a joking reference to the flak one takes from the press corps. None of those who spoke with RCP would criticize Spicer or Sanders.

But not everyone is happy to see the slow evolution into irrelevance. “Tweets and soliloquies are not an adequate substitute for regular briefings,” Jay Carney told RCP. “Not in a democracy.”  In the briefing room, Carney took questions from journalists almost daily for Obama from 2011 to 2014. “How a press secretary answers,” he said, “gives American citizens, and audiences around the world, valuable information about the nature and intentions of the leader of the world's most powerful and influential democracy.”

Outside on the White House grounds and around the country, Carney kept Obama away from the recorders and cameras of the press corps. Journalists were lucky to get a candid picture of the president, let alone an off-the-cuff answer out of him. The press corps didn’t like it.

When Obama and Bush traveled on Air Force One to the funeral of Nelson Mandela, press photographers didn't see the two presidents for over 40 hours. Journalists filed a formal complaint. Another time, photographers were barred from watching the president shoot hoops with the University of Connecticut Lady Huskies on the White House basketball court. The administration later released a video – one that showed Obama making all his shots.

This kind of de facto photo ban, longtime photojournalist Santiago Lyon said in a 2013 New York Times op-ed, amounted to “Orwellian image control.” According to an official statement from the AP later that year, it was almost as if this White House was “placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens.” The administration was “blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”

Reporters get plenty of color from this president, along with candid photos and even more candid soundbites. But if they got their way, they'd get greater access and a briefing. It’s really not too much to ask, said Martha Joynt Kumar.

“It doesn’t have to be an either-or-choice,” the director of the White House Transition Project told RCP. “We want to hear from the president, certainly, but there is no reason why there should not be daily briefings, as has been done in the past.”

There was a time when it wasn’t out of the ordinary to hear directly from a president, sit in on a briefing later, and file a story all in the same day. Aggression -- occasionally downright antipathy -- during the process, isn't anything new either. “Presidential irritation with the press has always been there,” Kumar notes. Even George Washington complained about his coverage.

But things are different, according to Raj Shah, the deputy press secretary who left the Trump White House at the beginning of the year. Even the most trusted names in news don’t care about the facts, he asserts. They prefer drama. Why else, he asked, did CNN and MSNBC not broadcast a policy briefing with Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, instead cutting to Sanders taking questions from reporters during the last briefing?

“If those [OMB] briefings can’t get cable news coverage, they are obviously looking for fireworks, not information,” Shah told RCP. “Part of the reason why the White House press corps really likes the briefing is because members of the press get on camera. That’s just it. Bottom line.”

After briefing the press on and off for two years, the deputy concluded that the practice had devolved into an opportunity for reporters “to build brands and personalities” rather than get information.

When the White House did float a new policy, Shah said he was met by an incredulous and single-minded press. The names of the outlets might change, he recalled, but the questions remained mostly the same. Once, after Trump proposed arming teachers to prevent school shootings, Shah remembers looking out at a packed briefing room and thinking: “I doubt there are a lot of NRA members among these reporters.”

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Washington, D.C., has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and the political leanings of the press corps don’t exactly incline them to pack heat. A Politico poll of the White House press corps in 2017 found that 16% were Democrats, 37% were independents, and 37% weren’t even registered to vote. Only three, about 5%, identified as Republican.

Also not a surprise: “The pack mentality.” That’s according to Ari Fleischer, press secretary for the first two years of the George W. Bush presidency. The bipolarity of the on- and off-camera attitudes, he told RCP, is “the dirty secret of the White House press corps.”

Reporters were always better behaved when the cameras weren’t rolling, Fleischer remembers. Questions on background or during an Air Force One briefing, when journalists recorded on pen and paper rather than videotape, he said, were always about getting a fuller picture and a better understanding. Once things went live, everything changed because everyone knew their audience — a phenomenon that has only gotten more pronounced during the Trump presidency.

“The press secretary and the press core behave differently knowing that their bosses and the people who know them are watching on TV,” Fleischer argued. Sanders knows Trump is watching and the press knows their editors are doing the same, “so you’ve got to be tough. You can’t go easy.”

An Accident of History

This is all familiar to Mike McCurry even if it has been more than 20 years since he worked in the White House. He wasn’t just the first to face the press after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. He was the first to let the cameras roll live during the briefings. Much of the problem, McCurry now believes, stems from that decision. And it was all an accident.

“I did six years of briefings,” McCurry told RCP -- two at the State Department, four at the White House, and all televised. “It’s why all my hair is gray,” he joked. There are times he wonders how he didn’t tear all of it out. When the U.S. was bombing Serbia or Clinton was brokering a peace deal in Ireland, McCurry was briefing reporters. He did it on camera, a unique practice at the time -- but on an embargo basis, unlike today.

Because of this embargo, meaning television stations couldn’t air footage until after the last question was answered, cable networks didn’t have the option to go live. Rather than put the whole session on the air later, “splattering it all out there … without context,” journalists had to decide which remarks were especially newsworthy. “They had to use their editorial judgment,” McCurry argued.

Things changed when he was promoted to the White House in 1995, a job that was in many ways, he said, “a reporter’s dream.” When he had questions, the entire federal government seemed to have answers. The White House had to come up with a concrete response before he could brief the press. He credits the fact-finding part of the press secretary’s job for “stimulating policy and making for clearer and sharper policy.”

McCurry spent most days running around the White House, and didn’t give much thought to a conversation he had with a group of radio reporters. They had wanted to know if they could they broadcast the briefing live. McCurry shrugged.

“I didn’t ask for permission, I just did it,” he said. McCurry remembers wondering at the time who would stop in the middle of their day to watch journalists quiz a press secretary on policy. Even a cable network like CNN likely wouldn’t bother.

“It worked perfectly fine for the first three years that I was at the White House. Then the whole Monica Lewinsky thing came on. Then watching me sweating at the podium was a lot more entertaining than afternoon soap operas. Then it was ‘Mike McCurry briefs live at 1:30 today.’

“It went on almost every single day in January of ’98 because of this red-hot scandal,” he said. That’s when his mom started calling, his staff started doing his makeup, and everything started to change.

“I knew the exact moment I realized the monster I had created,” McCurry recalled. “It was after the Monica Lewinsky thing broke and I came out to do the briefing, and of course all the cameras are in the back to carry it live, but suddenly I had on the podium with me four TV crews setting up the reverse shot of the correspondents.”

The press, and their righteous indignation, were suddenly part of the story. “They wanted to get the picture of their reporters asking the question,” McCurry said.

He doesn’t watch many of the briefings anymore. He doesn’t knock reporters for throwing elbows now that Trump has declared war on the Fake News. He doesn’t criticize Sarah Sanders, either, though he says she sometimes comes out “smoking” and “looking for a fight.” The old press secretary thinks the current spectacle is the result of an environment that rewards theatrics over substance.

“Maybe some part of me says, ‘Well, thank God we are sparing the American public from that by not having briefings anymore.’”

Asked at the last briefing if she would brief the press more often after things calmed things down a bit, Sanders scoffed. “I haven't noticed a change in the atmosphere,” she said. “I know that the president is the most accessible president in modern history.”

The White House declined to comment for this story.

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