Donald Trump has a message for the White House press corps: The press briefing room the journalists have used since the 1970s belongs to him, and if he wants to take it away, he can.
On Saturday, Esquire reported that the incoming Trump administration has discussed evicting the press from the briefing room and holding the daily briefings with the press secretary in a space outside of the White House. “They are the opposition party,” a senior official told the magazine. “I want 'em out of the building. We are taking back the press room.”
But something is happening here that is more insidious than Trump and his administration lashing out at perceived enemies. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, the administration is interested in potentially “stacking press conferences with conservative columnists and staffers from pro-Trump outlets.”
“The current briefing room only has 49 seats,” Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told Stelter, “so we have looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity to accommodate members of media including talk radio, bloggers and others."
I’m generally skeptical of the current structure of White House press briefings; while it’s important for a top White House aide to be answerable to the public on a daily basis, the fact that the briefings are televised live seems to encourage everyone involved to grandstand and limits the amount of actual news created by the practice. As former press secretaries have noted, this practice created a “theater of the absurd,” with journalists and staff alike subject to perverse incentives that prioritize optics over substance.
But retaining the daily, televised briefings while opening them up to a panoply of Trump sycophants will make them much, much worse, taking time away from real journalists and giving it to pro-Trump propagandists.
Urging the incoming Trump administration to adopt a similar plan in November, Newt Gingrich hinted at the effort’s real purpose: undermining the traditional press. “They should rethink from the ground up the whole concept of the White House press corps, come up with a totally new grass-roots model, and not allow the traditional media to dominate and define White House press coverage,” he told Sean Hannity
In other words, in order to limit the number of potentially fraught questions from professional journalists, the Trump administration will open the doors to hacks and charlatans.
Jeffrey Lord, one of CNN’s resident Trump supporters, previewed how this could work last night. He told Anderson Cooper, “I think a lot of members of the press are perceived as thinking, ‘This is ours.’ What happens, for instance, if Sean Spicer comes out one day and says not only is [Trump] going to Twitter, but we’re giving the first six seats in here to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, et cetera, et cetera. And then we’re giving the rest, the next five, to various bloggers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
The White House press corps has and should remain welcoming to journalists of all political stripes. But White House press briefings will change dramatically if a vastly increased pool allows Spicer the opportunity to avoid damaging news revelations by directing questions to loyal outlets like Breitbart.com, Infowars, Right Side Broadcasting Network, One America News Network, Ingraham’s LifeZette, or the National Enquirer.
We saw how this could work in practice at Trump’s press conference last week. Trump had rarely publicly interacted with the press since his election, so there were a wide variety of pressing issues worthy of reporters’ attention. But the president-elect was able to soak up some of the precious question time by pivoting to softball questions from Breitbart and OANN.
Trump’s press conference behavior mirrored his general practice of using his platform to lift up outlets devoted to his success; for instance, over the past week, he has used his Twitter feed to promote LifeZette and OANN and to attack NBC News and CNN.
Overseas precedents demonstrate how this method, taken to the extreme, can be used to discredit the media and damage their ability to provide oversight. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who has covered Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, noted in the wake of Trump’s press conference last week that the Russian dictator has been able to defang the media by alternating questions between “people from publications that exist for no other reason than heaping fawning praise on him and attacking his enemies” and “token critic[s].”
As Gingrich’s November comments suggest, the floated plan to alter White House press briefings is based in a general denial of the media’s historical responsibility to inform the American public. We should expect Trump’s administration to do everything it can to do to hinder journalists’ efforts and reduce their credibility. He and his team treat the press as an enemy to be defeated and destroyed.
“You don't have to think of The New York Times or CNN or any of these people as news organizations,” Gingrich explained last week. “They're mostly propaganda organizations. And they're going to be after Trump every single day of his presidency.”
Sean Hannity took this line of argument to its logical extreme in the wake of the election, stating that until the traditional press admit that they were “colluding” with the Clinton campaign (this is laughable), “they should not have the privilege, they should not have the responsibility of covering the president on behalf of you, the American people.”
Trump’s potential plans for the White House press briefings should be seen as a part of that strategy of delegitimizing journalists. It is a tangible step he can take to damage the press corps. The White House Correspondents Association has spoken out against the proposed move, but the group can’t stop the move if the administration really wants to go through with it.
The potential bright side is that journalists may respond to the Trump administration’s declaration of open war against the press by finding new ways to critically cover the new president without being so reliant on the access they have traditionally received from the White House. If they don’t take that opportunity, though, they’ll be following the rules of a game that no longer exists.
Sign Media Matters’ petition urging the White House press corps to “close ranks and stand up for journalism” against Trump’s attacks.