Is it hasta la vista, baby, for the venerable White House daily briefing for the media?
Way back there in 1955 James Hagerty, the press secretary for President Dwight Eisenhower, came to the conclusion that admitting television cameras to presidential press conferences Ike held in the Indian Treaty Room of the next-door to the White House Old Executive Office Building (now named for Eisenhower) was the future. Hagerty had one caveat, though. While Eisenhower would be on camera, the press conference would be filmed - not live. The reasoning was simple. If the President misspoke, the film could be edited before being released to the television networks.
Hagerty’s reasoning was conveyed to Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, who had won his narrow victory over Richard Nixon in part because of his performance in the first live presidential debate in history, would have none of this. Thus it was that shortly after being inaugurated, President Kennedy strode onto the stage of a State Department auditorium and changed presidential history with the first live, televised presidential press conference. It was a smash success, drawing a television audience of sixty-five million Americans. And in the process cementing the live televised presidential press conference into a White House - and national - routine.
By 1970, President Richard Nixon reached the conclusion that the modern, television-centric media that had become the White House press corps could no longer exist without a formal, modernized home. To the gasps of some, Nixon ordered the construction of the White House briefing room over the swimming pool built for the paralyzed Franklin Roosevelt. Not only did the pool vanish (although still beneath the floor of the briefing room) so too did JFK’s mural of sailboats on a calm and peaceful Caribbean disappear. Into this new setting there was also something else new - the daily televised White House press briefing. In which the president’s press secretary (and occasionally the president himself) would step to the podium with cameras rolling and brief the press, taking their questions live and in living color.
When Ronald Reagan took office, the old actor realized the importance of a set. Theater-style seats were installed, the blue-colored theme of the room selected and an oval sign bearing the words “The White House- Washington” underneath an image of the building was hung behind the podium. In 2000, years after the assassination attempt on Reagan that seriously wounded White House press secretary James Brady the room was officially named in Brady’s honor. The Bush 43 White House remodeled the room yet again in 2005.
And throughout all the decades the daily televised press briefing went on. Newscasts were routinely littered with clips of the president or press secretary of the moment standing behind the podium and answering questions about the hot issue of the moment. The scene is a staple of American life.
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Now? Is the daily briefing about to vanish into the mists of presidential history? A relic of 20th century technology? And a casualty of a Trump presidency?
The question arises in the wake of the now-famous Trump press conference that featured a showdown with CNN reporter Jim Acosta and the President-elect. One has to believe the Trump team is asking themselves why incoming press secretary Sean Spicer should put up with what they undoubtedly see as a hostile press corps when 21st century technology provides multiple ways to brief the American people and the press without standing in front of that briefing room audience of journalists.
Whatever else history will record about the 2016 campaign, without doubt it will be remembered for Donald Trump’s successful use of Twitter as a communication tool that allowed him to go completely around the mainstream media. And as president?
Who needs the daily White House briefing to communicate when you have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Why tussle with the networks, the New York Times and the Washington Post when you can Skype in to the local anchors in Altoona or Milwaukee or Houston? Why take questions everyday in the briefing room when you can talk directly to reporters all over the country in 140 characters or simply Instagram from the Oval Office or the press secretary’s office?
If this were actually done one can only imagine the outcry. There would be story after story attacking President Trump not to mention press secretary Spicer. Would it matter - or would it wind up helping Trump?
Relationships between Presidents and the press have always been, well, interesting. The dust up between President-elect Trump and CNN’s Acosta is far from unusual. In the quainter days of the Kennedy administration, after JFK forced U.S. Steel to roll back a price increase Kennedy was slammed by the New York Herald Tribune. The President was so irate that, as Jeff Greenfield noted over in Politico, the angry President “ordered the 22 White House subscriptions cancelled.” Take that you low life reporters of the Trib!
Thanks to the Nixon taping system, we can hear a furious President Nixon talking on the phone to his press secretary Ron Ziegler as the Washington Post drilled away on Watergate. “I want it clearly understood that from now on, ever, no reporter from the Washington Post is ever to be in the White House…never in the White House…never again….Or I will fire you.” To which Ziegler responds: “Yes sir!”
Who can forget the Obama animus towards Fox News? (Aside from the mainstream media!) Time after time, Obama White House Communications Director Anita Dunn was sent forth to various media to slam the network, as she did here on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying:
The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. And it is not ideological... what I think is fair to say about Fox, and the way we view it, is that it is more of a wing of the Republican Party.
Obviously [the President] will go on Fox because he engages with ideological opponents. He has done that before and he will do it again... when he goes on Fox he understands he is not going on it as a news network at this point. He is going on it to debate the opposition.
[Fox is] widely viewed as a part of the Republican Party: take their talking points and put them on the air, take their opposition research and put it on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.
Dunn, of course, wasn’t alone in expressing hostility towards Fox. The President himself began his administration in 2009 saying this to CNBC’s John Harwood:
I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration…That’s a pretty big megaphone. You’d be hard pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front[.]
When Fox’s Bill O’Reilly snagged a 2014 interview with Obama, there was this back and forth:
O’Reilly: “Your detractors believe that you did not tell the world [Benghazi] was a terror attack because your campaign didn’t want that out. That’s what they believe.”
Obama: “And they believe it because folks like you tell them that. These kinds of things keep on surfacing in part because you and your TV station will promote them.”
Even as his term ended and in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat Obama was still complaining, saying:
There is a cohort of working-class white voters that voted for me in sizable numbers, but that we’ve had trouble getting to vote for Democrats in midterm elections. In this election, [they] turned out in huge numbers for Trump. And I think that part of it has to do with our inability, our failure, to reach those voters effectively. Part of it is Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country, but part of it is also Democrats not working at a grass-roots level, being in there, showing up, making arguments.
Thus the notion that President Trump will directly take on his antagonists in the press has precedent aplenty. But there’s a question well aside of the outrage that would pour forth from his adversaries if, say, the briefings ended and the White House press corps banished to the Eisenhower EOB.
That question? Would abolishing the daily press briefing and substituting for it a 21st century social media strategy work? There is, of course, no way of knowing unless and until it actually is done. But that the Trump White House might consider abolishing this ritual should not come as a surprise.
The real problem the White House press corps and the media in general are going to have to face in a Trump presidency, as discussed in this space the other week, is the unconventional nature of the man himself as measured by all the usual standards of Washington convention. He won the White House by breaking just about every rule of political convention that journalists insisted could not be done. He found a way to get around the media with Twitter. He made the Trump rallies into an art form. He did one thing after another that his critics said would never work in communicating with the American people. And he won anyway.
Now he’s about to become the president.
Why would he stop now?
Trump isn’t much for vacations. But one suspects there might be some time made to bring back FDR’s old swimming pool - bringing an end to the West Wing presence of a White House briefing room and not coincidentally the reporters who inhabit it.
Somewhere, Richard Nixon must be chuckling.