White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’s disinclination, with approval from President Trump, to hold daily press briefings represents a serious setback of the public’s right to know. The briefings aren’t enshrined in the Constitution and she isn’t violating it -- except in its broad regard for freedom of the press.
But press briefings have become part of the lore of our governance. It’s the opportunity where, through the media, the public can ask, “What is going on?” And, as important, “What’ve you got to hide?”
Like many things in a democracy, the system of questioning the administration at the daily briefings is imperfect, cantankerous, open to abuse, and unfair to smaller news organizations.
But the briefings are a small, frequently foggy, window into the White House and the administration of the day. The briefings are how the public, through the media, peers in. Presidents should be worried about what will be asked and how it will play. That’s in their long-term interest.
From time to time, some politician or commentator says we need something equivalent to the British House of Commons’ Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ).
Actually, we did have it for quite a long time, and now we don’t: It was those daily briefings.
Some press secretaries haven’t been forthcoming, but there’s always the palliative effect of simply raising an issue. A small pebble unearthed, as with a small secret, can set in motion a landslide, revealing truths, identifying mendacities and adding to the hygiene of a democracy.
Much depends on the character of the press secretary and the relationship he or she has with the president. A good press secretary is one we, the media, trust and one who’s also trusted by the president -- not to lie for him, but to advance his interests while informing the press of the president’s thinking.
Most press secretaries aren’t asked to lie, but to work around awkward truths.
I recall, particularly, when I was in the press party which accompanied President Bill Clinton to China. Mike McCurry, the press secretary, a favorite of Clinton and the press, did his best to eschew the Monica Lewinsky scandal. For example, McCurry manipulated the exit press conference in Hong Kong. I heard him arrange for an Irish correspondent to get a question in because McCurry knew that correspondent wouldn’t ask about Lewinsky.
Another press secretary who was liked and admired by the president he served, George W. Bush, was Tony Snow. He’d been a member of the press corps and we trusted him through contentious times to brief fairly and answer questions to the best of his knowledge. There was plenty that was debatable, but the three-way trust between the media, Snow and the president, was preserved. The same could be said of his successor, Dana Perino, who is now a Fox News host.
A president tweeting isn’t a president being open. It’s a harangue. It’s a version of my way or the highway. Likewise, questions answered or avoided at the end of a photo opportunity in the Oval Office or on the South Lawn on the way to the helicopter aren’t a press conference. It’s a hit-and-run where the president drives off unscathed.
The Trump administration got off on a bad footing with the media not because of preexisting bias but because of initial preemptive lying. When Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, maintained, despite incontrovertible photographic evidence, that Trump had larger crowds at his inauguration than Barack Obama had had at his, the back story was that lying in defense of the president was okay, part of the job. It shouldn’t be; lying undermines the veracity of every factual answer to come.
On Sept. 8, 1974, Jerry terHorst, President Gerald Ford’s press secretary, resigned when he found that he’d been kept in the dark of Ford’s plan to pardon Richard Nixon and had, as a result, misled the press. The press corps revered Jerry for what he did; for what appeared to a be a blow for the truth. He got a long, standing ovation when he spoke at the National Press Club.
Despite what the Trump administration says, the facts are journalism’s bread and butter. Honest.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and he’s based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.