With a holiday pause in what’s been largely covered as the warfare between President Donald Trump’s White House and CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, this is a good time to step back and look at the issue of presidential news conference coverage on TV through a broader lens.
Let’s put aside the heated rhetoric and personality-oriented-Trump-v.-Acosta framing and ask more fundamental questions, such as: With all the disinformation and lies coming from that podium in the White House press room, what are we getting from these sessions anyway? And, more importantly, what are we delivering to the American people with our live coverage?
Some might say democracy itself, citing the tableau of give and take between reporters and Trump or his surrogates like press secretary Sarah Sanders. But I wonder if it is really democracy or just the reality TV version of it, with the reporters being used in walk-on or recurring guest roles in a West Wing production starring Trump.
Technological revolution, lifestyle changes and the highly unorthodox Trump presidency have led us to question all sorts of fundamental beliefs we in the media have held for decades as to how best we can serve our audiences and democracy.
In August, I wrote about the ways in which covering Trump as a media figure challenged my core journalistic beliefs. Throughout my career, I operated on the principle that you played it down the middle and did not take sides.
But there is no middle with the misogynistic and racist words of Trump, for example. A full-throated denunciation is morally demanded, and I am still wrestling with that challenge to my bedrock belief in balance.
So, if we are willing to question such core values, why not get outside the box of tradition on all media aspects of this presidency and rethink our role in the TV news conferences as well?
Start with what the White House news conference is being reduced to under a communications operation run by Bill Shine, who in 2017 left as co-president at Fox News amid allegations that he had helped cover up complaints of predatory sexual behavior by his boss, CEO Roger Ailes. Shine has denied the allegations.
The kindest characterization I can think of for Shine’s role as a senior executive in the sick, abusive culture of Fox News during the Ailes era was that he looked the other way while women were sexually harassed and assaulted.
And now with his title of deputy chief of staff in charge of communications, he’s writing the rules for reporters’ behavior during White House news conferences.
Only on what I have called the Bizarro Planet of Trump’s White House would someone like Shine be writing the rules of decorum. But here we are.
Shine and Sanders suspended Acosta’s access after a contentious press conference on Nov. 7. Sanders charged that he laid hands on a female intern who tried to take the microphone from him — a charge she supported with what proved to be a doctored videotape.
She and Shine dropped that allegation in responding to a CNN suit seeking to reinstate Acosta’s access, and a federal judge ruled that the White House had violated due process in its handling of the suspension.
After a few empty threats, Trump’s communications team restored Acosta’s access Monday. But the rules Shine has written in connection with that act are clearly an attempt to clamp down on the press corps and lay the groundwork for future suspensions that would not violate due process.
Under the new rules, reporters can only ask “a single question” of Trump at a news conference, unless he or another “White House officer” allows a followup. The reporter must then “yield the floor,” give up the microphone and sit down. Failure to follow these rules will result in the loss of a reporter’s pass to the White House.
Why should the press be forced to play by such rules written by the likes of Sanders and Shine — particularly when they break from decades of press behavior informed by the larger, constitutional relationship between the executive branch of government and the press? This is certainly not in keeping with the role of watchdog envisioned for the press by the First Amendment.
Of course, Trump’s team would like members of the press, in their role as supporting players in the president’s reality TV show, to be absolutely servile in their questions — bowing and scraping like Shine’s friend and former Fox News colleague, Sean Hannity, or Boris Epshteyn, the former Trump communications aide who is now chief political analyst of the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
But Hannity and Epshteyn are unabashed propagandists, not journalists.
The White House Correspondents’ Association said in a statement Monday that it had “no role” in crafting the rules, and does not intend to abide by the single-question mandate.
"For as long as there have been White House press conferences, White House reporters have asked follow-up questions,” Olivier Knox, the group’s president, said in the statement. “We fully expect this tradition will continue.”
We will see if actions back those words. I do not envy anyone who has to deal with this press-bullying White House, but I think the correspondents group needs to be more daring, imaginative and tougher in responding to its provocations.
Trump is using the White House press corps and his encounters with them to control the national narrative and, by extent, what we as a people think about and act on. And he gets away with it in large part because he is willing to repeatedly transgress boundaries of truth, decency, respect and fairness.
In the news conference on the day after midterm elections, Trump set out to change the developing narrative of Republican losses being blamed in large part on suburban women repudiating his actions as president.
And so he attacked Acosta, his favorite TV target, someone his base loves to see the president slam. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he went after two black women, Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, and April Ryan, of American Urban Radio Networks.
Like many in the mainstream media, I ditched a piece of election analysis on which I was working to report and write about his ugly attacks on members of the press. Once again, he controlled coverage at a crucial moment through his reprehensible behavior.
So what should we do?
First, let’s rethink all automatic assumptions, such as whether we absolutely have to cover Trump when he holds a news conference, because he’s the president of the United States.
Yes, we have to cover him in some fashion, but not live on three or more cable channels. The live coverage turns the conferences into performance art rather than a genuine exercise in uncovering facts, and that’s Trump’s game. Do what was done with his prime-time rallies — cover them, but not live, on-camera, giving him a free run of airtime. Push him off center stage. Prevent him from controlling the news by exercising journalistic judgment about what we choose to show of him.
Sure, a contentious news conference makes for highly engaging TV at 3 p.m. on a weekday. Except for a huge breaking news story, it’s about as good as it gets in cable news.
But as much as it is imperative in corporate media to get a big enough audience to make a profit, we also have an obligation to public service and the democracy that allows us First Amendment protection.
Cable news executives need to revisit the balance between profit and public service when it comes to airtime for Trump. They need to ask themselves what they are giving their audiences when they play into Trump’s hands with so much free, live TV time.
TV executives know the game he’s playing. They gave him virtually all the free time he wanted as a candidate during the 2016 election. Now it’s time to do some penance for those sins, and think about how that is affecting our democracy with him in office.
Members of the correspondents association and the executives of the platforms that employ them also need to think about how far they are willing to allow the White House to demean some correspondents before they say enough is enough and threaten to walk out of the room as a group in protest.
If our audio tracks are filled with White House lies that multiply exponentially when we cablecast them in live coverage, and our cameras are showing a false tableau suggesting a feisty democracy in the parry and thrust of questions and empty answers, whom or what are we really serving besides Trump and his agenda?
A correspondent engaged in an animated exchange with Trump isn’t really the Fourth Estate holding the executive branch accountable. It’s just a made-for-TV image of that relationship. And, all too often, Trump is the one controlling the way it’s staged and ultimately used to his political ends.