Fox host wonders if the press are the ones responsible for the draconian restrictions of Trump's White House
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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.)
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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President Donald Trump’s communications strategy requires the White House to delegitimize all sources of information that provide unfavorable facts about the administration. The press, the bureaucracy, the Congressional Budget Office, and the judiciary have all been cited as unworthy of the public trust because they dared to contradict the White House line.
Now Trump is claiming that his own spokespeople also can’t be trusted to provide the real story about his actions.
This week has seen not only a near-constitutional crisis, but also a cataclysmic communications disaster after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been investigating whether the president’s associates had colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. First, prominent Trump administration figures -- including the vice president -- offered up the obvious lie that Trump fired Comey in response to a recommendation from the Justice Department because Comey had been unfair to Hillary Clinton during the presidential election. Then the president himself admitted that he actually had planned to fire Comey anyway and was acting in response to the FBI director’s handling of the Russia probe.
With the White House taking heat for promoting what were obvious lies, the president this morning tweeted that it is “not possible” for his surrogates to accurately convey the facts, and that he is considering ending press briefings in favor of sending written statements.
As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
...Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future "press briefings" and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
White House press secretary Sean Spicer proved that his office was unworthy of trust the day after the president was inaugurated, and he lies frequently from the podium. But it’s still remarkable to hear this coming from Trump himself. The comments are significant for several reasons.
First, it’s an acknowledgment that the president believes that his own top aides can no longer be counted on to accurately convey information about his actions. He is establishing himself as the sole source of truth regarding his administration’s decisions. And given the president’s pattern of lying on a near-constant basis, and shifting his positions with the wind, his statements set up a scenario of perpetual gaslighting.
Second, it suggests that he may shift the role of the White House Press Office to simply providing propaganda. Traditionally, there is an understanding that the White House has a responsibility to provide information on the administration's positions and responses to events, gained through press briefings where members of the media can ask questions. The fact that the press secretary and deputy press secretary have constantly lied from the podium doesn't mean that the briefings don't serve a purpose in allowing the media to publicly and regularly ask questions of the administration. A shift to a press-release-only model would allow the White House to provide only the answers it wants to the questions it deems worthy of a response, with no opportunity for reporters to ask follow-ups.
Third, there is no reason to think that White House press releases would be more accurate than comments from the briefing podium. In fact, the official written statement from Spicer provided the same false claims about Comey’s firing that Trump has now renounced.
Fourth, it's a confirmation that the president believes the real thing that went wrong was that the White House failed to adequately defend his actions, not that he did anything wrong by firing the FBI director because of the way the director was investigating his associates.
These are dangerous steps that suggest the president is seeking drastic changes in order to better control and manipulate the press. Following Trump’s open admission that he fired the FBI director in part to bring an investigation to a favorable conclusion, reporters should be worried.
UPDATE: In an interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro set to air Saturday, Donald Trump says he thinks “it’s a good idea” to eliminate press briefings, in part because his aides get "beat up.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 12, 2017
Earlier today, White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said that “doing away with briefing would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned.”
In a letter explaining his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump cited “letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending [FBI Director James Comey’s] dismissal as the Director of the” FBI. After removing Comey, various White House officials and right-wing media figures pushed the claim that Trump “took the recommendation of his deputy attorney general” and fired Comey, but days later, Trump himself admitted that he was thinking of "this Russia thing with Trump" and “was going to fire [Comey] regardless of [a] recommendation” from the Department of Justice or the deputy attorney general.
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As President Donald Trump reaches his 100th day in office, his administration’s relations with the press have not improved. Here’s a look at some numbers that exemplify the conflicts, 100 days into his tenure:
To determine how many times Trump has tweeted the words “fake news” since his inauguration, Media Matters searched ProPublica’s database for Trump’s tweets containing the phrase.
To determine how many national televised interviews Trump has conducted, Media Matters kept track of all TV appearances and compared the results to a search on Nexis.
To determine how many times Spicer called on One America News Network and Breitbart during press briefings, Media Matters tracked questions Spicer has answered during the press briefings, coding for the name of the journalist and the outlet the journalist is reporting for.
To find out how many tweets Trump has sent about Fox & Friends, Media Matters searched the ProPublica database for mentions of “fox” in Trump’s tweets.
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Media shouldn’t be so willing to let White House press secretary Sean Spicer off the hook for his comments comparing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler given the implicit and explicit ways President Donald Trump and his administration have embraced white nationalists. No matter how ineffective, Spicer’s comparison is another example of a wink and a nod to the type of hatred that is a part of this White House’s culture.
During an April 11 White House press briefing, Spicer likened Assad to Hitler, telling reporters that unlike Assad, “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” When he was asked to clarify, Spicer said that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,” when in reality the German SS and police used poison gas to asphyxiate millions of Jews in concentration camps (which Spicer called “Holocaust centers” in his comments). After repeatedly trying to explain his comments, Spicer ultimately apologized, calling them “inexcusable and reprehensible.” Meanwhile, white nationalists cheered the remarks, praising the press secretary for exposing the “Jewish gas chamber hoax.”
Media were quick to accept Spicer’s apology and let him off the hook. Fox News’ Kevin Corke called it “heartfelt and … very unequivocal” and added, “he should be able to move on … quickly.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said, “I’m going to give Sean the benefit of the doubt,” saying Spicer “got himself into a verbal trap and could not get himself out.” On CNN’s New Day, Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to former President George W. Bush, accepted Spicer’s apology, adding that “the notion that this is somehow nefarious or indicative of Holocaust denial, I dismiss.” Additionally, CNN commentator David Axelrod tweeted that Spicer has “apologized” for his comments and it’s “time to move on.”
But this is hardly the first time that Spicer and the Trump administration used obtuse language or offered an implicit nod to the white nationalist community. For instance:
Trump hired Stephen Bannon, who previously ran Breitbart, a "platform for the” white nationalist “alt-right" movement as his chief strategist -- a move that was lavishly praised by white nationalists.
At the end of the presidential campaign, Trump ran an ad that Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote was “packed with anti-Semitic dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Semitic vocabulary.” Naturally, Trump’s white nationalist supporters loved it, calling it “absolutely fantastic.”
In a closed-door meeting, Trump reportedly suggested that an onslaught of anti-Semitic incidents were false flags, an assertion repeatedly made by white nationalist media figures. Previously, Trump had refused to condemn the incidents while berating a Jewish reporter.
The White House failed to mention the Jewish people in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is in addition to the direct contact Trump and his aides have had with members of the white nationalist community. For instance:
According to The New York Times, Trump has “retweeted supportive messages from racist or nationalist” supporters, including “accounts featuring white nationalist or Nazi themes.”
Former Trump adviser A.J. Delgado retweeted a Trump endorsement from the anti-Semitic hate site The Right Stuff.
Trump’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted “love you back” to an anti-Semitic Twitter account.
Media figures are wrong to simply dismiss Spicer’s Holocaust comments as a hiccup. The connections between the Trump team and the white nationalist community are too strong for Spicer’s comments to be treated as a one-off. Spicer’s blunder is emblematic of the administration’s continuing effort to wink and nod at -- and sometimes openly embrace -- its white nationalist supporters.
The day after a survivor of a 2013 chemical attack in Syria said in a Fox News interview that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “worse than” Adolf Hitler, White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to parrot the claim when he compared Assad to Hitler, falsely adding that Hitler did not use chemical weapons. Spicer’s comments also echo those made by a Fox analyst in 2013 on fringe website World Net Daily (WND). But it is universally accepted that the Nazis under Hitler did in fact use chemical weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, and Spicer’s gaffe is yet another example of the Trump administration internalizing talking points heard on Fox News.