Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble.

"Wake up: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally aligned with him."

30 Jun 2017 2:00 am 28 Comments

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.

— Journalists were told to leave a Justice Department event marking Pride month, which was taking place in an area normally open to press.

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.

28 Comments

Thank you for seeing this new reality so clearly. I hope every journalist working today takes your analysis to heart. I’ll share it as widely as I can.

Brilliant and timely. Smart liberals are pulling back and reassessing the new terrain from a much broader POV, because maintains democracy, at it was winning it from the Brits, has to be a horizon-inclusive strategy. Emotionalism is a tool, not a tactic. And the DNC is embattled– in the wrong place to include philosopher-strategists. The thinking really must come from analysis of what has changed compared to what has not (crises analysis) and theoretical extrapolation and exposition.

Left leaning know where they stand and why. Moderates– the center– is being mangled with conflicting info and even if not AIMED at them, the alt-right narrative is something they must manage in the info stream, therefore, will have to accept OR reject and therefore move them left or right.

At this moment Trump is tough– a bully in fact and the left labels it so– but to a moderate comfortable with aggression it just looks like leadership.

This and other issues the current alt-right GOP government create for the social fabric MUST be managed by first definition, then repetition and the alternative solution presented alongside.

The GOP has only prevailed thus far for two reasons: they strategize as for war, to win and they use business marketing techniques (in fact, psychological propaganda)!to deliver their WMD: anti-civil rights narrative.

Think about it…

Pris Robichaud says:

Indeed, the daily complaining by the press has become oppressive. Do something about it, don’t sit there and take it. Become proactive not reactive. WH Journalists are smart people, develop a plan, and we will support you. Look at the support Brian J Karem received for speaking up. Move on!

I have said this from his first week in office. I do not understand and am frustrated by the press’ continued support of this presidency, in the form of attendance at any and all things Trump. Stop covering him in this way. He can’t stand inattention. Cover him adversarily from the outside, and he’ll fold from the hollow feeling of shouting into the void.

Can’t agree more. The press is playing into the very game Brian’s states in his article. Stop going to the briefing for a week…I mean all of you – that is going to take a coordinated effort to make that happen.

Dave New says:

If, and a huge if, all media stayed away, it would impact Trump. The problem is that the more “fringe” and “friendly” outlets (Brietbart, Fox, etc) would not participate, which would give Trump exactly what he wants – press briefings, conferences etc. where only softball questions are asked, and there is no holding the administration’s feet to the fire.

Linda Berger says:

Brilliant.

Williston says:

Well OK, Mr Rosen’s headline theory is:

‘White House daily briefing is in trouble because Trump is not trying to win over anybody not already with him’

As proof-building for this theory, Mr Rosen initially cites some disparagement of selected news media outlets by Trump… and some new restrictions upon the media to some minor Executive Branch activities. Rosen labels all this as “provocation”.

To somehow explain the “Why” of this alleged provocation, Rosen asserts (without evidence cited) that “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.” Rosen further asserts that Trump “rejects all that” … and seeks only “… to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters”. Rosen apparently finds this quite “confusing and disorienting” to himself and to “many of our most prominent journalists”.

Rosen rambles on, but then sort of gets to his prime thesis — “that lying has become a White House routine” … and therefore: “{White House} 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?”

Oh the national horror — White House “journalists seem less threatening as judges and more useful as foils” That is Mr Rosen’s true thesis, rather than that headlined. Few Americans will lose any sleep over this topic — and none should care if the Daily White House Press Briefings were permanently abolished.

I agree with the press boycotting the press briefing. Short of that – it is time for the press to be a little LESS polite in these press briefings. Take Jim Acosta’s lead from last week. Press for answers. When Huckabee/Spicer say “we’ve made it clear” – YOU say NO it ISNT CLEAR. Stop being so polite – it brings nothing to the table.

Can’t agree more with this: STOP BEING SO DARNED ‘RESPECTFUL’ AND POLITE TO THE SARAH HUCKABEES AND SPCIERS OF THE BREIFING RM. DONT GO DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL, OF COURSE, BUT SHOW SOME BACKBONE FFS!

mb slack says:

As a former member of the D.C. press, I think you misunderstand the job of the press. The 1st Amendment is taken VERY seriously; the press see themselves as not just protected by the 1st Amendment, but obliged to seek truth and hold accountable the powers that be BECAUSE of it.

My guess, my hope, is that there will always be an aggressive, well informed and dedicated free press that will not give up their duty simply because the WH has different plans.

This statement “Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him” – says it all and is brilliant in its assessment. Once you realize this – you will see that these press conferences are a “dodge”, a “game”, and a waste of time. Press priorities: 1. Stop attending the briefings 2. Short of that – be more aggressive 3. Short of that – send your interns to the briefings

>>> @JonB says: This statement “Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him” – says it all and is brilliant …

___________

That statement is nonsense — what the he|| does “naturally allied” mean (?) … were they born that way?

Trump is hardly the first President with an adversarial relationship with the press… nor first to manipulate White House information flow.

Politico — Feb. 22, 2013, 8:17am:

“Power, the President, and the Press: The political press’s frustrations with their treatment by President Obama became a lot more public this week, after Fox News’ Ed Henry issued a statement on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association complaining that no reporters got access to Obama’s golfing trip last weekend. Henry clarified the next day that the complaint wasn’t about golf specifically, but about the broader principle of transparency and access.”

“Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen then published a long piece detailing Obama’s efforts at “limiting, shaping and manipulating” the press’s coverage of him, largely by limiting press access and releasing plenty of information directly to the public instead. The reaction was quick and critical — not of Obama, but of the Washington press corps. The gentlest critique came from former White House reporter Matthew Cooper at The Atlantic, who noted that the White House press has always complained about the press tactics of whichever administration is in office, adding that the access they’re losing isn’t that crucial anyway.”

———————–

the White House Press Corps is a joke — non-journalist palace-stenographers who deal in trivia & gossip … and never ever break any news of importance.

Naturally allied with means Trumps core constituency. The existing audience for grievance politics with an anti-immigrant, nationalist edge.

No one said he’s the first President with an adversarial relationship with the press. No one said he’s the first to manipulate White House information flows. Knocking down these absurd statements is a meaningless act.

We don’t need your whataboutisms. We’re trying to have a serious discussion here.

Ann tutwiler says:

I also said in January that the news outlets should send interns- or just tape recorders on chairs-

Bettye Demps says:

All ideas are brilliant…just do it
Press are you in?

Here’s what i don’t get: If the rules have changed, why do the press keep acting like a herd of cats? Why don’t they “collude” as a group (the serious outlets anyway) and agree to standards of behavior and demand a certain level of quality response or they ALL ask the same question or they all walk out or what have you to their own standards? Why not mock or agree on outrage when outrage is called for? Hell, we all need to quit playing nice when only one team plays by the rules. Further, they need to agree that 34% of the nation is too unintelligent to recognize critical thinking and cannot be reached. So, write them off, vs. the opposite where every pol and reporter is now trying to reach out to the forgotten man, saying that what the problem is. The problem really is that the “simple” in our country used to be–on average–moral or at least constrained by decency of old-school theology. Now they are “the Cable guy” not the Methodist Grandma. So let the press change rules and gang up on the lack of reason, the lack of honesty, the lack of transparency, and quit kidding themselves that they need to be MORE fair or they will lose the Trump Cohort. That group will disappear as a generation not as a conversion to sensible.

Bill Michtom says:

I strongly agree with this, especially “they ALL ask the same question.”

I stopped watching TV news in the mid-70s and am still very well informed. So much of the time, MSM wastes their resources and our time.

As to Hunter Walker, I rarely read press interactions with the WH, feeling what is happening in Congress has a more direct impact on Americans.

Walker, and many of his colleagues, will do no good for the American people until they do what Kevin (and others) suggests here.

Well i really dont know much about the new president but these all ideas sounds quiet. How about you people?

Hi Jay: I’m sorry to be so late to this comment party, but since Trump tweeted the video of him wrestling CNN today, these questions about the press covering his Tweets still fits.

In February you wrote, “Trump tweeted outrageous and politically risqué stuff. The press gave it crazy coverage because normally candidates are risk-averse.” I recognize that a President’s tweets are news and so must be covered, but the media are still giving him ‘crazy coverage’ – five months later! What is their excuse for this turn towards “all Tweets all the time”?

Trump is brilliant at one single thing: maintaining a high reality TV profile/ratings. Of course he will attack the media because they take the hook time and time again!

It is becoming obvious to me that CNN and Morning Joe and the rest are eyeing those ratings and deciding to play along. Witness CNN’s Don Lemon do a revoting to-camera anti-Trump rant about Mika, and Joe and Mika calling the President wrestler-worthy epithets for weeks.

Will any media dare to bury coverage of Trump’s tweets on page 10, or after the first commercial break?

Jay, I think you’ve written in the past about the great swathes of news media that have gone rotten for ratings. Is Trump their just desserts? Perhaps his CNN wrestle GIF is not just appropriate, but brilliant.

DJ Tanyan says:

After Watergate, governmental power resolved never to have reporters bring down a president again. That power couldn’t muzzle the 1st amendment but it could make reporters “stars” (highly paid) and ’embed’ them so they depend on power for access. Both Trump and all today’s major news outlets share hunger for ratings and they both are cashing in on the greatest ‘reality show’ in history.

Leave the damn briefings reporters. Develop outside sources…it’s more fun that way anyhow.

The necessary adjustment is a “People’s Bill Of Rights For White House Transparency”. See the Facebook page of the same name. It is an unfettered press that stands between the people and tyranny. This Bill Of Rights is a measure to strengthen the working press against intimidation and abuse by the politicos of the press office and the occupants of the West Wing. Article One would return credentialing authority to the White House Correspondents Association as it was initially, and restore the balance of power between the press and the WH. This administration has abused that power by credentialing shills, stooges and trolls so as to dilute the power of the press corps. Please see the Facebook page and stand in solidarity. It’s that important.JS

I fully disagree with the recommendations that members of the press boycott the briefings. That is not the answer. In the topsy turvy whirlwind of this presidency, it seems critically important for us all to claim every vestige of our tradition that implies an open government. We cannot cede ground. We must keep demanding that this administration answer the people’s questions. We cannot lose ground.

paul lukasiak says:

Jay is not suggesting a media boycott of the briefings.

Rather, he is urging that media outlets send interns to cover them, rather than real reporters.

paul lukasiak says:

Two suggestions:
1) When Trump does something that is obviously wrong, do not give column inches or air time to his surrogate who attempt to justify it. Condemn it, and then move on.

2) Every statement coming out of the administration should be reported as an allegation unless the media outlet has independently confirmed the facts. The biggest purveyor of fake news is the current White House, and the media needs to stop acting otherwise.

Bill Michtom says:

When my son was in high school, he ran a column called Elvis update in the alternative newspaper.

Each edition was: Still dead.

This is how the press should cover Trump: Still a bigoted narcissist.

Nothing more is needed.

Per Atle Perald says:

If you started a new job, and the mass media started a campaign against you because they did not like your politics, and the mass media used uncofirmed stories about you to do that, even you would get tired.

Why is criticism of any woman “misogynistic”? Even women that criticize you on the above mentioned terms?

Trump should throw these reporters out, and oppen up the swimming pool under the floor.

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