President-elect Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have scheduled several Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet picks -- as well as Trump’s first (and likely only) press conference of the transition -- on a single day next week. The strategy seems designed to ensure that the media is unable to devote sufficient scrutiny to each story and to reduce the possibility of an educated public responding.
Trump announced yesterday that he will hold a “general news conference” on January 11. It will be the first Trump press conference since July 27, a stretch of 168 days. By contrast, President Barack Obama fielded questions from the White House press corps 18 times as president-elect; President George W. Bush did so on 11 occasions.
Trump previously promised to hold a December 15 press conference to address the conflicts of interest his business empire creates for his presidency, but he canceled it. Those conflicts -- including the possibility that Trump will be in violation of both the Constitution and a contract with the federal government immediately upon taking office -- should be a top priority for journalists on January 11. But by refusing to give a press conference for so long, while simultaneously scaling back on media appearances, Trump has created such a backlog of potential issues that it will be impossible for reporters to give all of them the time and coverage they deserve.
Meanwhile, McConnell has done his best to fracture journalist attention by ensuring that six different confirmation hearings are scheduled for the same day. Wednesday will see hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the nominee for attorney general; ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state; billionaire conservative activist Betsy DeVos, for secretary of education; Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), for CIA director; Gen. John Kelly, for secretary of homeland security; and Elaine Chao, for secretary of transportation.
Several of these nominations are extremely controversial. The American people deserve to know more about Tillerson’s ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, learn why white nationalists are so excited about Sessions’ nomination, hear what Pompeo thinks about Trump’s reported plan to gut the CIA after the agency produced information about Russia’s influence on the 2016 election that he didn’t want to hear, and determine whether DeVos would use her post to destroy public education.
But with all the hearings stacked on the same day, on top of Trump’s press conference, it’s impossible for the media to provide the information people need. And that’s the point -- it appears to be a deliberate effort to manipulate both the press and the public.
There are only so many column inches on Page 1. There are only so many segment blocks in a cable news show. The evening broadcast news programs -- watched by millions but with extremely little time for hard news -- will have to juggle a multitude of stories.
TV newscasts in particular will be put in an impossible situation. They can try to drill down and give in-depth coverage to the stories they consider the most newsworthy and important and let the rest escape scrutiny altogether. Or they can try to cover them all, but provide only glancing attention to each. Either way, Trump and McConnell will have dramatically reduced the agenda-setting power of the press.