STUDY: Sean Spicer’s first 48 press briefings
More right-wing outlets, shorter briefings, and obsessive cable coverage
During 48 press briefings as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer has elevated reporters from conservative outlets and drastically decreased both the number of follow-up questions granted and the amount of time devoted to answering journalists’ questions compared to Josh Earnest, his Obama administration predecessor. The three major cable news outlets have also exponentially increased the amount of time spent airing Spicer’s press conferences live compared to those at the end of the Obama administration, broadcasting nearly all of Spicer’s briefings in their entirety.
In this study:
The three main cable news networks have obsessively covered the Spicer briefings. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC each aired at least 93 percent of Spicer's briefing time, compared to only 2 percent of Earnest's.
Spicer's briefings were significantly shorter than Earnest's -- 42% shorter. Spicer's briefings averaged 45 minutes compared to Earnest’s, which averaged 1 hour and 18 minutes.
Spicer's top five, most-called-on reporters were all from conservative-leaning outlets. Five of Spicer's 10 most-called-on news organizations were conservative-leaning.
Politico reported in mid-May that in light of the “crises that are engulfing his administration,” President Donald Trump is considering upending his communications department, including potentially replacing Spicer at briefings with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and/or largely scaling back on the number of live, on-camera briefings. (News broke May 30 that Communications Director Mike Dubke has resigned.) Trump has also suggested canceling the briefings entirely.
Given reports about what might happen to Spicer’s role in the administration, Media Matters, which has tracked all of Spicer’s formal press briefings since inauguration, is looking back at Spicer’s first four months as press secretary.
Which reporters and outlets were called on most often?
Spicer set the tone for how the administration planned to deal with the press during his first briefing to reporters on January 21, where he claimed -- contrary to all available evidence -- that President Donald Trump’s inauguration had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” (It did not.)
Since then, the press secretary has had multiple clashes with reporters in the briefing room, notably with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, NBC’s Kristen Welker, and American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan. After Spicer told Ryan to “stop shaking [her] head” on March 28, he has called on her only two other times, and he hasn’t given her a question since March 30. (Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert and deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders did call on Ryan during the May 11 briefing. And Ryan attempted to ask a question at the May 8 briefing, but Spicer ignored her.)
While Spicer has repeatedly skirmished with critical journalists from mainstream outlets, he has also shifted the briefings to include many more conservative-leaning reporters. His top five go-to questioners were all from right-leaning outlets: Fox News’ John Roberts, Fox News Radio’s Jon Decker, Newsmax’s John Gizzi, Fox Business’ Blake Burman, and One America News Network’s Trey Yingst.
In addition to the 48 Spicer briefings analyzed, Media Matters also collected data on a corresponding number of briefings by Obama White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, beginning with his last time in the press briefing room on January 17 of this year backward to August 22, 2016. (We assessed press briefings at the end of the Obama era as opposed to the beginning because it allowed for a comparison of more similar media environments.) Earnest’s most frequented reporters were more ideologically diverse and mainstream: Fox News’ Kevin Corke, CNN’s Michelle Kosinski, NBC’s Ron Allen, CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller, and Agence France-Presse’s Andrew Beatty.
How did Spicer handle follow-up questions compared to his predecessor?
Earnest allowed journalists to continue questioning through follow-ups until their line of inquiry was exhausted while Spicer often appeared ready to move on the moment he finished his answer. Earnest’s top five reporters averaged approximately 192 follow-up questions over the 48 briefings studied while Spicer’s top five averaged approximately 53 follow-up questions over the same number of briefings. In total, Earnest allowed 2,574 follow-up questions while Spicer allowed only 1,919 over the same number of briefings.
Spicer used his position to elevate conservative outlets
Spicer has also elevated conservative outlets that had a limited or nonexistent presence in the briefing room during the last portion of Earnest’s tenure. The biggest beneficiaries were One America News Network, Fox Business, Newsmax, The Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, and Fox News Radio. Between the Earnest and Spicer briefings analyzed, One America News Network and Fox Business jumped from zero questions each under Earnest to 32 questions each under Spicer. Newsmax went from 10 questions to 34, The Daily Caller from zero to 24, Washington Examiner from one to 24, and Fox News Radio from 12 to 34.
In addition to One America News Network, Fox Business, and The Daily Caller, other conservative-leaning outlets have asked questions in the press briefing during Spicer’s tenure that were either not present or did not ask a question during Earnest's last 48 briefings. These include LifeZette, Christian Broadcasting Network, and Townhall, all of which Spicer has occasionally called upon for questions. Other conservative outlets have appeared, if only for a few questions, including CNS News, Independent Journal Review, Intermountain Christian Newspaper, Jobe Publishing, The Lars Larson Show, Salem Radio Network, and UNF News.
Conservative-leaning outlets also make up half of the top 10 news organizations called upon most often in the briefing room. Fox News Channel, Fox News Radio, Newsmax, Fox Business, and One America News Network all made the top 10 organized by number of times Spicer called upon their reporters. (NBC News has multiple reporters from both NBC and MSNBC in the briefing room at any given time.)
By contrast, Earnest’s top 10 most called-on news organizations in his last 48 press briefings were more mainstream and more diverse, including broadcast news, cable news, wire services, radio news, and members the foreign press. While Earnest's top 10 included several of the major wire services, Spicer's top 10 included none.
From Earnest to Spicer, The Associated Press dropped down to 11th in the rankings, CNN fell to 14th, Reuters fell to 12th, CBS Radio fell to 24th, and Agence France-Presse went all the way down to 47th.
How frequently did Spicer hold briefings, and how much time did he devote to answering questions?
Spicer’s days in the briefing room have dropped dramatically since early April -- and briefings, which were a largely regular occurrence during the beginning of the administration, have become sporadic at best.
Since April 11 -- when Spicer caused a firestorm by claiming that Adolf Hitler “didn't even sink to using chemical weapons” -- Spicer has helmed only 12 briefings, which averaged approximately 36 minutes in length. By contrast, Spicer’s first 36 briefings, on and before April 11, averaged approximately 49 minutes in length. (Altogether, Spicer’s 48 briefings averaged approximately 45 minutes in length.) Earnest, on the other hand, averaged a briefing length of approximately 1 hour and 18 minutes for all 48 briefings analyzed. Overall, Earnest’s 48 briefings totaled 63 hours and 24 minutes while Spicer’s totaled just 36 hours and 36 minutes.
After not airing Earnest press conferences, cable news networks aired almost all of Spicer’s press briefings in their entirety
The three major cable news networks have been unable to resist airing Spicer's briefings live and -- aside from a few exceptions -- largely in their entirety. While some disparity in airtime should have been expected due to the fact that Spicer’s original press briefings likely featured more news than ones at the close of the Obama administration, the gap in airtime is still striking.
All three cable networks aired some portion of all of Spicer’s 48 briefings live. CNN has aired 97 percent of Spicer’s briefing time thus far; Fox News, 96 percent; and MSNBC, 93 percent. (All three networks, MSNBC in particular, broke from briefings to cover the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia with then-FBI director James Comey on March 20, then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation hearing on March 21, the Westminster, London, terror attack on March 22, Gorsuch’s confirmation vote on April 3, and the San Bernardino, CA, school shooting on April 10).
By contrast, over the same number of Earnest briefings, each network aired only about 2 percent of their total time. This even includes instances where a network played a clip from “moments ago” as the briefing was still underway.
Over Earnest's more than 63 hours of press briefings, CNN spent 1 hour and 26 minutes, Fox News spent 1 hour and 4 minutes, and MSNBC spent just 1 hour and 16 minutes televising the briefings. But for Spicer's more than 36 hours of press briefings, CNN televised 35 hours and 33 minutes, Fox News televised 34 hours and 59 minutes, and MSNBC televised 34 hours and 9 minutes.
Media Matters reviewed all 48 daily press briefing conducted by White House press secretary Sean Spicer between January 23 and May 15, 2017, and an equal number of daily press briefings conducted by former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest beginning on January 17, 2017 and going backward to August 22, 2016. Press gaggles were excluded from the analysis. If the deputy press secretary conducted the briefing, those were excluded. Ninety-six total briefings were included in the data.
We tracked how often the press secretary called on journalists to ask questions, and we also kept track of the number of follow-up questions a journalist was able to ask. If a journalist interjected without a clear indication of being called on by the press secretary, that was counted as being called on if the press secretary heard and answered the question. If the question was ignored, it was not counted. When journalists asked multipart questions or multiple questions without interruption from the press secretary, those questions were counted individually. If a subsequent question rephrased or clarified the prior question for the press secretary, it was not counted as a separate question.
We counted only those questions fielded by the press secretary. Questions posed to other members of the administration, other cabinet members, or guest speakers at the beginning of briefings were excluded from the analysis.
For the length of each briefing, we went to the official White House YouTube pages and used the video lengths for press briefing videos uploaded by the White House. We then used video archive services iQ media and SnapStream to scan through CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC to time how much of a briefing was broadcast. Any portion of a briefing broadcast during the time that the briefing was actually taking place was included in the totals. The time lengths include when other members of the administration, other cabinet members, or guest speakers took questions from the press as well.
Journalists were identified by watching the video in real time. In approximately 4 percent of all times a journalist was called on, we were unable to identify the journalist asking the question. These typically included members of the foreign press pool or members of news outlets who do not have a regular pass to the press room. These unidentified journalists were excluded from the analysis.