I remember one time in the White House briefing room when President George W. Bush was at the podium fielding questions. The subject was Iraq and, as I recall, had to do with potential withdrawal dates for U.S. troops. Bush worked the front row — the Associated Press, Reuters, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN. By the time he was into the second row, with the likes of The Washington Post and New York Times, he was getting the same question over and over — and delivering different versions of the same non-committal answer.
At one point, a frustrated reporter said something like, "Why don't you just answer the question?" to which Bush replied (I'm paraphrasing here), "I have answered the question, you just don't like my answer."
That is the White House beat in a nutshell. We reporters have the chance (some might even say the right) to ask the most powerful man in the world questions. But here's the catch: He's got the right to answer any which way he wants. And here's one other important thing: When the president is refusing to answer a question, being evasive, that can become news. It's right there for everyone to see, so a reporter faced with that can simply report the news.
But that was then. Nowadays, it's typical for reporters to berate President Trump (think CNN's Jim Acosta refusing to hand over the microphone at a presidential press conference and demanding a straight forward answer). Gone are the days when decorum and simple manners reigned in the White House briefing room.
The situation has grown even worse in recent days. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post noted this week that CNN did not air a rare press briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders — even after the constant demands for more press briefings.
CNN’s move on Monday appeared to the Erik Wemple Blog to be a programmatic démarche. As a close watcher of these things, we’ve seen the network routinely uproot its regular coverage to take the feed from Sanders in the briefing room. Better said, the briefings have been part of CNN’s regular coverage — as they had been for all three cable-news networks for much of the Trump presidency. Looking back over Sanders’s “recent” briefings, it’s pretty clear that CNN defaulted to live and comprehensive coverage of these sessions: Dec. 18, Nov. 27, Oct. 29, Oct. 3, Sept. 10, Aug. 22, July 23, July 18, July 2, June 25, for example.
But not on Monday. Instead, as Sanders answered questions from the press, "CNN host Jake Tapper opened his show with an extensive discussion of the 2020 presidential candidacy of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), with whom Tapper held a CNN town hall in Des Moines on Monday night. Moments later, the network aired a prepared package by White House reporter Kaitlan Collins on the first White House briefing of 2019 — complete with footage of Sanders, moments earlier, telling reporters that Trump doesn’t want to do another government shutdown."
A few wags on Twitter mocked CNN for the move, as Wemple notes.
The CNN move wasn't altogether unxpected. Since Trump took office, some "journalists" have been urging TV networks not to air the once-daily briefings live. Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein even proposed not carrying Trump's press conferences live.
"I don't think we should be taking them live all the time and just pasting them up on the air because they're basically propagandist exercises because they are overwhelmed by his dishonesty and lying. ... Maybe we should be there, edit, decide as reporters what is news, and after the press conference or briefing is over then go with that story with clips rather than treating the briefing or press conference as a campaign event, which they really are," Bernstein said on CNN in November.
That quickly got picked up by late-night talk show hosts and other liberals.
"First of all, just because Trump wants to address the nation doesn’t mean networks should air it," said Seth Meyers, host of NBC's "Late Night." "Otherwise, they’re just passing on his lies unfiltered. They should either reject him outright, or, if he insists on speaking in prime time, make him do it as a contestant on 'The Masked Singer,'" Meyers joked.
"Some advice," tweeted Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton. "Demand to see the text in advance and if it is not truthful either don't air it or fact check it live on lower third. And cut away if he goes off text and starts lying."
"It is a disservice to the American people to broadcast, without context or real-time fact-checking, someone who is using the airwaves for the sole purpose of lying to the American people about an overtly racist agenda," wrote Kurt Bardella, an opinion writer for USA Today.
Here are several options for how the news networks could approach Trump's Tuesday night remarks:
- Air the president’s address on a 15-to-30 minute delay so they can fact-check his statements and air those fact-checks as the remarks are broadcast.
- Refuse to air the speech in its entirety and only air truly newsworthy sound bites about substance and public policy.
- Get an advance copy of the speech and clear it for accuracy before agreeing to air it.
- Give a Democrat, such as Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, equal time to rebut the president.
CNN's move followed MSNBC, which bailed on taking press briefings live last year, Wemple reported in a piece headlined, "MSNBC declines to allow Sarah Sanders to dictate its programming."
MSNBC distinguished itself with a similar move on Nov. 1, when it didn’t transmit live a fearmongering presidential address about immigration and the caravan in Mexico. At the time, MSNBC declined to comment. Asked about Tuesday’s decisions, an MSNBC source said, “Given the pace of the day’s news we decided to monitor the briefing and to report on any major developments afterwards. The briefing was live streamed on NBCNews.com.”
Wemple mused on the meaning off CNN's move:
The decision by both MSNBC and CNN on Monday to defend their airwaves from the often bogus pronouncements of prominent Trump officials could mean any number of things, including: 1) Nothing — CNN might have had peculiar reasons for its call, such as promoting its town hall with Harris, and it may return to default briefing coverage if Sanders ever presents herself again at the lectern; 2) Something — CNN may be discovering that its audience appreciates editorial discretion when it comes to White House lies, even though the network has done a good job of post-briefing fact-checking; 3) Everything — Monday could be a turning point for the media’s appreciation of its own role in covering the Trump White House. Maybe even Fox News will develop some self-regard on this front and air its own newsies instead of Sanders.
Joseph Curl ran the Drudge Report in the a.m.'s for four years and covered the White House for a dozen years as The Washington Times' White House correspondent.