First, read this update that CNN’s Brian Stelter included in his nightly newsletter this week:
In the past 24 hours…
— President Trump went after two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, The New York Times and the Washington Post, with “fake news” tweets.
— The White House told reporters they could cover Trump’s first re-election fundraiser, but then made an abrupt change, “closing the event to media in a break from past precedent.”
— The W.H. prohibited TV cameras at the daily press briefing again.
— The president posted James O’Keefe‘s anti-CNN videos on his official @realDonaldTrump Instagram page, promoting the videos to millions of followers.
— Trump allies in the media continued to attack. O’Keefe’s videos were a top story again on Fox News, with Tucker Carlson at 8pm, “The Five” at 9pm, and Sean Hannity at 10pm all leading with it…
— The W.H. confirmed that Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in aren’t planning to hold a joint news conference when Moon is here on Friday. Joint pressers are customary when heads of state are visiting. But the W.H. didn’t schedule one when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited on Monday, either.
— The Pentagon gave a non-answer when asked why Secretary of Defense James Mattis decided to travel this week without the usual contingent of TV journalists.
Now add to Stelter’s list these items…
* The damaging retraction by CNN of a wayward report about the Russia investigation that led to the resignation of three top journalists at the network. We still don’t know what was wrong with it; we just know that it did not pass through CNN’s checks and balances.
* Politico’s report that “Donald Trump and his allies believe he’s gained a tactical advantage in his war with the media… Some Trump allies suggested that the recent misstep at CNN is enough to justify drastic changes to how the White House deals with the press, including moving reporters out of the West Wing entirely.”
* Trump’s spectacularly hateful and misogynist tweets about MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “the latest of a string of escalating attacks by the president on the national news media.”
* The recommendation by Mike Allen of Axios.com — the most insidery of all Washington journalists — to “stop going to the White House press briefings.”
* Josh Marshall’s analysis that, though the press has shown courage and enterprise in standing up to Trump, “trying to shame the President or demand he change his behavior” is a futile game. Marshall points to “Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance.”
Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.
With all that as provocation, I want to pull the camera back a bit, and offer these thoughts: Why is this happening?
We are used to candidates who, when they win the nomination, try to bring the party together by embracing those who supported the losers. We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties.
Trump rejects all that. His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond. The substitution of depth (of attachment) for breadth (of appeal) is confusing and disorienting to those who believe in consensus politics. This includes many of our most prominent journalists. They are stunned and confused by this exchange.
Among the consequences is that persuasion drops out of the calculus of success, meaning: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him. This is abnormal behavior in an American president. Common expectations for the occupant of the White House simply assume that a case will be made for why the country as a whole should support the person in power. Sitting on high, the press is accustomed to judging how strong or weak that case for support is. Opinion polls provide the proof, especially the president’s approval rating. But if strength of attachment matters more than breadth of appeal, then approval ratings are a misleading metric.
But it’s worse than that. Once you remove persuasion from the equation many things tumble out of place. Plausibility itself becomes superfluous. Adjusting the claims of the White House to any common measure of reality breaks down as a discipline. What matters is the strength of the bond with core supporters, not the ability of the Administration to answer questions, parry doubts, or mount a convincing case for its program. This is one reason that lying has become a White House routine.
And this is why the daily briefing is in such trouble. The whole premise of that event is that the White House ought to make a credible show before reporters because reporters are a rough proxy for the unconvinced. But what if the people in power don’t care to convince the unconvinced? And what if reporters are seen, not as any sort of proxy for the voting public, but as avatars of an elite that has already been put down by the prior year’s election returns?
The field of possibilities widens. Once persuasion drops out of the calculus, journalists seem less threatening as judges and more useful as foils. Peering out over the assembled press corps, the White House briefer has a choice of convenient hate objects. Shall it be Glenn Thrush or Jon Karl today… April Ryan or Hallie Jackson? Those called upon may think themselves empowered to put tough questions to the people in charge, but if the people in charge care only about the reactions of core supporters their task is all too simple: put down the liberal media. An easy win. And the one campaign promise the president seems able to keep.
The whole premise of the daily briefing is that the White House has to grapple with tough questions. That is the test. But what if the White House cares not if it fails this test? More access, more toughness, and more on-camera briefings are no answer to that. This is where we stand today. The Trump government isn’t trying to persuade its doubters. There is no form of toughness that can redress this fact. Forget the briefing. It is already gone. A dead form, killed by the president’s approach to politics. It doesn’t even go out to the country in the way a normal White House communique would. It runs through the press to the president’s core supporters in a kind of closed loop.
Time to start planning for unforeseen events. When all forms of access and all avenues for questioning are choked off, journalism can still thrive. But it needs to become smarter. This is why I have been saying since January: send the interns. Redirect your most experienced people to outside-in reporting. They cannot visit culture war upon you if they don’t know where you are. The press has to become less predictable. And it has to stop volunteering as a hate object.
UPDATE July 1: A reporter in the current White House briefing room responds to what I wrote here, saying he respects the argument but disagrees. He defends the briefing and the importance of being there in the White House. Read what Hunter Walker of Yahoo News has to say. Bonus: The CBC in Canada covers this post.