Sean Spicer | Media Matters for America

Sean Spicer

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  • Roger Stone says he's in communication with the White House about the Seth Rich lawsuit

    Stone was one of the first to push conspiracy theories about Rich’s murder, and he has called on Rich’s parents to be “charged with obstruction” of the investigation into their son’s death

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Roger Stone is doing damage control following the filing of a lawsuit alleging a scheme by Fox News and Trump administration officials -- including possibly the president himself -- to use the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to absolve the Trump campaign of accusations it coordinated with Russia.

    During an appearance on Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory program, Stone said that officials he has spoken to at the White House are calling the lawsuit “bogus” and that he thinks the lawsuit will be dismissed “summarily.”  

    NPR reported on August 1 on a defamation lawsuit filed by Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman, and frequent Fox guest Ed Butowsky.

    Wheeler alleges that Zimmerman published fake quotations attributed to him in a since-retracted May 16 story about Rich, and that Trump administration officials, including the president himself, were involved in crafting the story. The retracted story suggested that Rich, rather than Russia, provided WikiLeaks with emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.

    Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged to NPR that he did meet with Butowsky and Wheeler prior to the story’s publication. The lawsuit also alleges that Trump himself reviewed the Zimmerman story before it ran.

    Rich was murdered in Washington, D.C., in July 2016 in what local police believe was a botched robbery attempt. Conspiracy theories began spreading within weeks of Rich’s death and percolated throughout fringe right-wing media for nearly a year before finally exploding into the national conversation thanks to Fox News host Sean Hannity, who continuously hyped Zimmerman’s May 16 report.

    During the August 1 broadcast of conspiracy theory program The Alex Jones Show, Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, said, “My sources at Fox and my sources in the White House tell me that the lawsuit filed by the black private investigator, former D.C. police officer, is completely and totally bogus.” Stone also added that he thinks the lawsuit will be quickly dismissed.

    Stone was one of the first prominent figures to promote conspiracy theories about Rich’s death.  

    On August 9, 2016, less than a month after Rich’s death, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons:

    In recent months, Stone has turned his sights on Rich’s parents, first calling their behavior regarding the investigation into their son’s death “suspicious,” and most recently saying that Rich’s “parents should be charged with obstruction" of the investigation.

  • Trump administration met with a GOP donor and a Fox contributor about a fake story meant to distract from Russia probe

    A new lawsuit alleges that Trump personally helped Fox create fake news regarding Seth Rich, and Sean Spicer admits that he took a meeting with two people involved in the story

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A new NPR report confirms that the Trump administration met with a Republican donor and Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler about a now-debunked FoxNews.com report that pushed false claims about Seth Rich, a deceased Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer. As reported by NPR, according to a subsequent lawsuit filed by Wheeler, the donor gave talking points about the Rich conspiracy theory not only to Wheeler but also to other Fox News employees, messaging that was then parroted on Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity’s show.

    Wheeler's lawsuit also alleges that President Donald Trump helped with the article in order to distract from the ongoing controversy about Trump’s possible ties to Russia. Trump, people in Trump’s inner circle, and Fox News have all previously spread fake news and downplayed and delegitimized efforts to counter the spread of fake news.

    In May, a Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., claimed that Wheeler, who is a private investigator, said police had told him that they were told to stand down regarding the death of Rich, a DNC staffer killed in what law enforcement has concluded was likely a botched robbery attempt. The affiliate also said that Wheeler said it was “confirmed” that Rich had spoken to WikiLeaks, which published thousands of leaked DNC emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.

    FoxNews.com reporter Malia Zimmerman subsequently published an article on the site quoting Wheeler as saying, “My investigation up to this point shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks,” and, “My investigation shows someone within the D.C. government, Democratic National Committee or Clinton team is blocking the murder investigation from going forward.” According to the lawsuit, in conjunction with the FoxNews.com story, the Republican donor who brought Wheeler and Zimmerman together also suggested talking points to "various Fox News producers" and Fox & Friends on-air personalities, as well as to Wheeler for use on Hannity’s program. Both Fox News shows parroted the suggested messaging within days.

    But the story was quickly debunked, with Wheeler admitting he had no evidence and D.C. police saying Wheeler’s supposed claim was false. Fox News was forced to later retract the story. Yet Hannity, who ran with the report, continued to push the conspiracy theory even after the retraction.

    Wheeler, in an August 1 lawsuit against 21st Century Fox, Fox News, Zimmerman, and the Republican donor, investor/Trump supporter Ed Butowsky, now claims that Zimmerman made up those quotes she attributed to him. Wheeler claims that Trump was given the article in advance to review and urged its publication, and that the supposedly fabricated quotes were published “because that is the way the President wanted the article.” Wheeler added that Zimmerman and Butowsky, who bankrolled Wheeler’s original investigation into Rich’s murder, “had created fake news to advance President Trump’s agenda.” Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer -- who had said in May that he knew nothing about the story -- has now confirmed to NPR that he met with Wheeler and Butowsky to discuss the article before it was published, adding that he did not know of any involvement by Trump.

    Here’s audio of Spicer denying knowledge of the Rich story in May:

    The allegations come after Trump and his inner circle have worked tirelessly to cloud the actual meaning of fake news while spreading fake news stories themselves. Trump and his aides, echoing right-wing media including Fox News, have repeatedly called legitimate news stories and outlets they do not like “fake news.” People close to Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have pushed fake news -- as has Trump himself. Additionally, federal investigators are looking into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign digital operation, headed by Brad Parscale along with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm hired by the campaign, colluded with Russia to target voters in specific states with fake news.

    And this would also not be the first time that Fox News has spread fake news. Last October, Fox hosts Howard Kurtz and Megyn Kelly both reported a fake news story that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called supporters of her primary opponent Bernie Sanders a “bucket of losers.” Kelly subsequently apologized for reporting the fake quote. In April, FoxNews.com published an article from the British tabloid The Sun that reported fake news originating from Russian state media; Fox later removed the article after The New York Times asked the outlet about it. Additionally, Fox News repeatedly tried to minimize and dismiss concerns about fake news after the 2016 election, calling them "nonsense” and “a fake story,” and claiming that fake news is actually just “in the eye of the beholder." And when Facebook considered (and later implemented) the idea of partnering with fact-checking organizations to fact-check potential fake news stories on its platform, Fox criticized the fact-checkers for having “a liberal bias” and a “proven” bias “against conservatives.”

  • Don’t hire Sean Spicer

    Trump's press secretary spent months lying and attacking the press. Networks shouldn’t pay him to do it.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    UPDATE: Shortly after the publication of this post, news broke that financier Anthony Scaramucci had been forced out of his position as White House communications director, which was announced 11 days ago and scheduled to begin next month. He was reportedly escorted from the building this morning. It is currently unclear if he will take another job in the White House or the administration. In the event that he does not stay in the administration, networks shouldn't hire him, either


    Outgoing White House press secretary Sean Spicer will need a new job when his tenure in the Trump administration concludes at the end of August, and he’s apparently hoping that one of the news outlets he’s spent the year berating will step up and pay him a salary.

    Spicer spent last Wednesday “in talks with major broadcasters about a new career in TV where he can share his insider knowledge of President Trump,” according to The New York Post, which reported that Spicer took meetings with top executives at the Manhattan headquarters of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News.

    It has become customary in recent decades for high-ranking White House communications advisers to convert their public service into a high-paying media sinecure. Former President George W. Bush’s White House aides Dana Perino and Nicolle Wallace and President Barack Obama’s advisers Jen Psaki and Josh Earnest are among the long list to make this transition. In return for their media salaries, these aides-turned-political-analysts offer network viewers an inside look at how messaging decisions are made at the highest level.

    But if network executives have a modicum of self-respect and the slightest sense of self-preservation, they will not offer Spicer this deal. To give the former White House press secretary a mainstream media gig would ensure that Trump’s communications aides face no punishment whatsoever for using the imprimatur of the White House to lie to and seek to undermine reporters. With that incentive structure firmly in place, there is no reason to expect that behavior to change. If networks are helpless to prevent this assault on their work, surely they can at least avoid rewarding it.

    President Donald Trump’s administration has been driven by a vicious, unyielding effort to destroy the credibility of journalists, setting them up as the “the opposition party” and the “enemy of the American people” in order to call their reporting into question. Spicer could have used his position to provide some space from the administration’s vitriol. Instead, he was an unapologetic leader in this campaign, regularly denouncing journalists for producing “fake news.” Spicer reportedly had a “strong antipathy toward both political journalism as a craft, and political journalists as a class of people” long before he joined the administration. There is no reason to think he would halt those attacks once he received a network salary, and indeed, that platform might make his attacks ever more potent. Why would a credible media outlet hire someone who holds journalism in contempt?

    Trump constantly tells lies, great and small, creating an immense challenge for journalists who have to sift through his statements and compare them to reality. In turn, Trump’s obviously false statements regularly puts his aides to the test, forcing them to decide whether they are willing to stand by those lies. But Spicer never seemed to have a problem choosing between Trump and the truth -- he was willing to say literally anything, no matter how absurd, in order to defend Trump. There is no reason to think that he wouldn’t do the same on air if a network put him on its payroll. Why would a credible media outlet hire someone who doesn’t clear even the lowest possible bar for truth-telling?

    Network executives who may be tempted to think that Spicer offers them more in value than they’d lose in credibility should take heed of the humiliation CNN put itself through last year. The network hired Corey Lewandowski shortly after he was fired from his post as Trump’s campaign manager, in spite of Lewandowski’s notoriety for verbal assaults and physical altercations with journalists. For all intents and purposes, Trump found a way to give Lewandowski a raise at the network’s expense, as the former aide continued to advise the candidate, travel with him, receive hefty “severance” checks from the campaign, and use his on-air time to defend every indefensible Trump action. After network head Jeff Zucker repeatedly defended the move while sustaining months of criticism from journalists of all stripes, CNN suffered the final indignity when Lewandowski resigned, seeking a job in the administration.

    CNN, which has experienced the most hostile attacks from the Trump administration of them all, is notably the only network to publicly say it is not interested in hiring Spicer. According to network host Brian Stelter, the decision is a deliberate response to “those anti-media attacks, the criticism of CNN and other outlets, all of the sort of inaccurate and false statements from the podium.” If CNN has truly learned its lesson -- and I am somewhat skeptical of a network that retains Jason Miller, Jeffrey Lord, and Kayleigh McEnany as on-air pro-Trump shills -- that’s a good sign.

    It’s also a good example for executives from the other networks, who may face a revolt from the journalists they employ if the hand a six-figure salary to one of their main antagonists. Opposition to a Spicer hire is already seeping onto MSNBC’s airwaves. “What hypocrites any broadcast network will be if they hire him,” anchor Thomas Roberts said last night before turning to look behind himself in the studio. “And he’s not here yet, but I’m just saying, what hypocrites every network will be if they hire Sean Spicer.”

    Networks seeking to maintain their credibility in the face of a White House assault on the press without recent precedent should pass on Spicer. If he’s going to get a media payday, let it be from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. That network’s hosts and analysts regularly defend whatever the president says, and for decades they’ve sought to undermine the rest of the press for their own benefit. Spicer can have a seat on Fox & Friends’ curvy couch in the morning and do hits on Sean Hannity’s show at night. He’ll fit right in.

  • Five warning signs from new White House communications director Scaramucci's first press conference

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    1. He refused to commit to the return of regular on-camera press briefings.

    JON KARL: I see the cameras are back, will you commit now to holding regular on-camera briefings? 

    ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: If [Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders] provides hair and makeup, I will consider it. But I need a lot of hair and makeup, Jon, OK? […] I am up here today only because I think it's the first day; we made a mutual decision that would make sense for me to come up here and try to answer as many questions as possible. But -- and the answer is we may. I have to talk to the president about that. I like consulting with the president before I make decisions like that.

    2. When asked if he’ll promise “accurate information and truth,” he responded "I sort of feel like I don't even have to answer that question," adding “I hope you can feel that from me, just from my body language.”

    KARL: There's been a question about credibility, some things that have been said in this room. Let me ask you a variation of what I asked Sean Spicer on his first day. Is it your commitment to, to the best of your ability, give accurate information and truth from that podium? 

    SCARAMUCCI: I sort of feel like I don't even have to answer that question. I hope you can feel that from me, just from my body language, that's the kind of person I am. I'm going to do the best I can.

    3. He deflected from a question about the Russia investigation by bragging about President Trump's supposed sports abilities.

    SARA MURRAY: Obviously we know the president has been feeling under siege with the Russia investigation, both from the Department of Justice but also on the Hill. Do you feel like he was feeling exposed? He didn't have people adequately coming to his defense? Is that part of the reason that we have you here today? 

    SCARAMUCCI: No, I don’t think so. So, one of the things that I’m doing today is – I sort of didn’t have my White House counsel briefing before I'm having the press briefing, so I want to limit my remarks related to the Russia situation and things like that. But here's what I'll tell you about the president: he's the most competitive person I've ever met, OK? I’ve seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. I've seen him at Madison Square Garden with a topcoat on, he's standing in the key and he's hitting foul shots and swishing them, OK? He sinks three-foot putts. I don't see this guy as a guy that's ever under siege. This is a very, very competitive person. Obviously there's a lot of incoming that comes into the White House, but the president’s a winner, OK, and what we're going to do is we're going to do a lot of winning.

    4. He said “I sort of don’t like the fake news,” and claimed “there feels like there’s a little bit of media bias” out there. 

    MURRAY: One other question, in terms of the relationship that this press operation has had with news outlets, they've made a habit of calling these outlets they don't like "fake news," calling stories they don't like "fake news," calling errors that were then corrected -- using that as an example to call entire news outlets "fake news," is that the kind of relationship you want with media outlets? What kind of -- how do you envision that relationship?

    SCARAMUCCI: Again, I will speak for myself right now, because I don't -- it's my first day on the job, I've got to get familiar with everybody, get direction from the president, but I had a personal incident with your news organization and I thought I handled it well. You guys said something about me that was totally unfair and untrue, you retracted it and issued me an apology, and I accepted the apology immediately. For me, I've never been a journalist, but I have played a journalist on television. I used to host Wall Street Week for Fox Business, so I have empathy for journalists in terms of sometimes they're going to get stories wrong. But I sort of don't like the fake news, and if you said to me that there is some media bias out there – if you want me to be as candid as I would like to be with you guys -- there feels like there's a little bit of media bias, and so what we hope we can do is de-escalate that and turn that around and let’s let the message from the president get out there to the American people.

    5. He claimed there's "probably some level of truth" to the lie that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 general election "if the president says it."  

    REPORTER: Do you stand by some of the factual claims that have been contested, that have been made by this administration -- three million illegal votes cast for the president's opponent? Do you now, do you endorse all of those statements of fact [inaudible]? 

    SCARAMUCCI: So, a little bit of an unfair question because I'm not up to speed on all of that, so I just got to candidly tell you that. 

    REPORTER: The president said that three million people voted illegally and there is no evidence of that. Do you stand by that or not?

    SCARAMUCCI: OK, so if the president says it, OK, let me do more research on it. My guess is that there's probably some level of truth to that. I think what we have found sometimes, the president says stuff, some of you guys in the media think it's not true or isn't true, and it turns out it is closer to the truth than people think. So let me do more homework on that and I'll get back to you.

  • The lights are going down on the Sean Spicer show. Here’s the mess he leaves behind.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    UPDATE: At today's press briefing, new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci announced that Sarah Huckabee Sanders will replace Sean Spicer as press secretary. Sanders has a long record of lying and attacking the press on President Donald Trump's behalf, and she will doubtlessly continue Spicer's shameful record. 

    Sean Spicer is on his way out, The New York Times reports, resigning from his post at the end of August to protest President Donald Trump’s plan to make financier Anthony Scaramucci his new communications director. But the former White House press secretary will not be forgotten. A respected Republican political operative who served as communications director for the Republican National Committee, Spicer provided establishment polish to the president’s war on the media, serving as the administration’s heavy until Trump grew tired of his performance. As much as any other member of the president’s team, Spicer is responsible for the dissolution of political norms that Trump’s administration has effected as it tries to delegitimize its critics in order to maintain power.

    Spicer turned the daily press briefings from a give-and-take between reporters and a White House seeking to inform the public into a grueling battleground where journalists were constantly denigrated for diverting from the party line. When he wasn’t lashing out at mainstream reporters, he was trying to stack the deck with more favorable questions by elevating representatives from conservative outlets -- particularly through the innovation of “Skype seats.” The length of the briefings -- which were short to begin with -- had plummeted in recent months, with the press office often demanding that they be kept off-camera.

    Spicer’s relationship with the press as press secretary began in crisis. On the evening after Trump’s inauguration, he convened the press corps. What followed was a shocking and unprecedented scolding, as Spicer lashed out at the press for its supposed “shameful and wrong” coverage of the inaugural crowd. Spicer, lying, claimed before images of the crowd that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period -- both in person and around the globe.” Setting the tone for future encounters, Spicer said that he intended to “hold the press accountable” for reporting facts that the administration denied, and then he left the briefing room without taking questions, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.

    Two days later, a more subdued Spicer appeared for his first official White House press briefing. Spicer denied that he had lied about the inaugural crowd, saying that “sometimes we can disagree with the facts,” while standing by his comments. Spicer told the same lies he had before, but because he did so in a calmer fashion, he received plaudits from reporters who no doubt hoped that the trend would improve.

    It did not. In order to defend a president who lies on a shockingly regular basis, Spicer would need to bend the truth again and again in the months to come.

    But lies alone cannot sustain an administration like this. In order to preserve the backing of its supporters, the White House would need to delegitimize any source of information that provides unfavorable facts about the administration. That strategy required regular attacks on the press from the White House briefing podium. Spicer filled that role with vigor. He attacked outlets and demeaned reporters who produced reporting damaging to the administration on a regular basis. He compared reporters to children, called one an “idiot,” and demanded another stop shaking her head in the briefing room.

    Spicer consistently harangued the media for its “negative” narrative and its “fake news” reports. When other members of the administration criticized the press as the “opposition party” or even the “enemy of the American people,” Spicer had no apparent problem standing by them. Nor did he see an issue with helping along the president’s attacks on other government entities.

    Spicer’s overzealous willingness to do anything and everything to defend the president notably caused an international incident back in March. In order to try to back up Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 presidential campaign, Spicer read a series of articles from the podium. This included a Fox analyst’s anonymously sourced claim that a British intelligence service spied on Trump on Obama’s behalf. The intelligence service denied the claim, Fox repudiated the reporting, and the administration was forced to discuss the incident with the British government. When Spicer was asked about the incident the following week, he shut down the briefing.

    Spicer was performing for an audience of one -- Trump, who regularly watched the press briefings on TV and even reportedly would send notes on his performance to the podium -- and he was willing to do anything to make the president happy. Spicer’s loyalty to the administration and his complete lack of standards or honesty in his role did little to help him.

    In May, the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey led to a communications disaster that ended with the president saying that his own spokespeople could not be trusted to convey the facts and suggesting that the administration might cancel all press briefings. Angry with his handling of the story, the president reportedly considered firing Spicer. In the months since, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, has often taken Spicer’s place at the podium, and rumors constantly swirled about possible replacements.

    On Tuesday, Spicer conducted his final briefing before news of his resignation broke -- it was his first briefing in three weeks. According to The Washington Post, his performance was “clueless,” and he seemed “out of the loop… often punting on basic questions.”

    The White House press corps should not expect things to improve with Spicer gone. Sanders has shown the same willingness to lash out at journalists, has demonstrated little interest in answering their questions or providing the slightest bit of information, has overseen the continuing de-emphasis of the briefings, and has eagerly worked with pro-Trump media outlets to undermine the rest of the press. Any political operative who comes from outside the administration to replace Spicer will know exactly what he or she is getting into and what is expected of the role, including continued attacks on the free press.

    Spicer will be gone, but the show will go on.

  • Can White House press briefings be saved?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Is the era of Trump White House daily press briefings now, for all practical purposes, over?

    On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer held an off-camera “gaggle” where all video and audio recordings were banned. It was only the latest example of an administration obsessed with secrecy and committed to embracing the opposite of transparency. (The White House held a similar “no audio” briefing last week.) That hallmark lack of transparency extends specifically to keeping journalists and voters as uninformed as possible.

    Today, White House press briefings are dying on the vine. They’re becoming increasingly scarce and unhelpful. “When Spicer and [deputy Sarah Huckabee] Sanders do take questions from journalists, they increasingly offer nonanswers,” The Washington Post noted this week.

    This trend fits a larger, disturbing strategy as the GOP-run Senate scrambles in total secrecy to pass a sprawling health care bill without holding any public hearings, without hearing from any health care experts, and without releasing the text of the bill. Reporters today have no idea what’s in the bill, simply because Republicans won’t make the contents public. (Reporters have to rely solely on Republican sources for legislative information.)

    It all constitutes a historic, incremental effort by the Trump administration to lock out the press -- and, by extension, the public -- from the government’s official duties and business.

    This was my warning just days after Trump’s November victory: Moving forward, news organizations face a stark, and possibly defining choice in terms of how they respond to any radical efforts to curb the media’s White House access."

    Today, some journalists, and specifically the large, influential news organizations they work for, deserve a healthy dose of blame for largely sleepwalking past a dangerous problem for months.

    For much of 2017, Media Matters has urged news outlets to take collective action to push back against the White House’s anti-press steamroller operation.

    This week, following the outrageous “gaggle” lock-out, CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta spoke out, suggesting “collective action” is the only option news outlets have in the face of the White House’s unprecedented attack on newsgathering:

    “It's bizarre,” said Acosta, who despite being labeled “fake news” to his face during a press conference with President Trump in February is not known for editorializing his reporting. “I don’t know what world we’re living in right now, Brooke, where we’re standing at the White House and they bring us into the briefing room here at the White House, and they won’t answer these questions on camera or let us record the audio... I don’t understand why we covered that gaggle today, quite honestly, Brooke. If they can’t give us the answers to the questions on camera or where we can record the audio, they’re basically pointless.”

    But is it now too late? The time for robust pushback was certainly back in January or February when the White House was still assembling its obstructionist strategy. The press should’ve been raising holy hell from day one. (Following yesterday’s controversy, the White House announced Spicer will be holding an on-camera briefing today.)

    Reminder: When the Obama White House tweaked an access policy in a way news organizations didn’t like, they instantly staged a “mini-revolt” by indignantly, and collectively, demanding a meeting with Democratic administration officials to fix the problem.

    Acosta's forceful and important commentary on Monday has been the exception, not the rule -- and criticism like Acosta's has not been bolstered by much tangible action from major news organizations.

    Why the media’s signature timidity? My guess is it was the dream of access journalism that prevented many in the press from doing the right thing from day one. It was the dream of access journalism that kept reporters, editors, and producers from loudly, angrily, and collectively, demanding traditional access from the Trump White House.

    Nervous about having their access cut off -- about not being called on at briefings, about being shut out of gaggles, about having no chance at landing a presidential interview -- many journalists and news organizations sat on their hands and hoped for the best. Nervous of offending a Republican president they deemed as a TV celebrity, journalists backed down. (Or worse, laughed along.)

    And leading the access brigade was the White House Correspondents’ Association. No matter how many obstacles the administration erected for the press, the group has routinely seemed to downplay them -- all while stressing the Trump team was providing access.

    But of course today the White House does not provide beloved access. It’s doing the exact opposite. The new paucity of on-camera briefings prove that point, as does the fact that when truncated briefings do occur the main objective appears to be to share as little helpful information as possible.

    Example: Three weeks ago a reporter at a briefing asked Spicer if Trump believed in climate change. Spicer said he didn’t know because he had never asked Trump. To date, Spicer still does not seem to have an answer for that very simple question.

    So yes, journalists sat on their hands while angling for access that never came. Trump hasn’t had a full-fledged press conference since February; it’s been more than a month since he sat down with a legitimate journalist to answer extended questions. And as scandal allegations mount, there’s no reason to think Trump’s personal attorney will allow him to give any in-depth interviews soon.

    While networks have gone overboard with airing almost all of Spicer's briefings, on-camera briefings -- even ones in which Spicer is his usual, evasive self -- are still better than nothing in terms of creating a video record of the administration's answers to reporters' questions on important issues.

    Nonetheless, the window to save the press briefings is closing quickly. I wish CNN and the rest of the press corps would take Acosta’s current advice (“we should walk out”), and do something.

  • STUDY: Sean Spicer’s first 48 press briefings

    More right-wing outlets, shorter briefings, and obsessive cable coverage

    Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.


      Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

      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.


      Sarah Wasko / Media Matters


      Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

      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.


      Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

      Methodology

      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.