The White House briefing room was constructed in 1969, a begrudging accommodation by Richard Nixon to give quarter to a growing phalanx of reporters assigned to cover the daily workings of a White House in war time. The room was placed on top of a small, indoor pool that was originally built for Franklin Roosevelt, who swam laps for therapy. John F. Kennedy was later rumored to have used the same pool for more prurient activities. It’s still under there today, albeit unfilled. If a trapdoor opened beneath Sarah Huckabee Sanders during her daily televised briefing, she would tumble directly into what was once the deep end.
In Kennedy’s time, before the briefing room, the White House press corps was largely a frat house of Ivy Leaguers who smoked Pall Malls, lived in Georgetown, and lounged around the West Wing during the day. After filing their newspaper and wire stories for the next morning, these nattily dressed hacks would drink Cutty Sark and gab off the record with a president who, generally speaking, shared in their sensibilities about the world, and almost certainly shared their pedigree. But after Kennedy’s assassination necessitated a minute-by-minute, body-watch style of media coverage, the White House press corps swelled in size. And with the advent of television, deep-voiced, square-jawed reporters became a distinct variety of national celebrity. The job earned a new kind of prestige that still endures in some depleted form. Even as the Internet has shattered every past definition of journalism, becoming a White House correspondent is still considered the apex of a reporting career in status-conscious Washington, a town accustomed to figuring out what matters only after the fact.
The outward glamor of the job title has always masked the workmanlike drudgery that defines it. The briefing room is, for instance, not only a refashioned aquatic center but also a cramped 49-seat, dollhouse version of a middle-school auditorium that can barely accommodate the crush of reporters, old and new, who have been assigned “hard passes” to cover the presidency.
Correspondents and producers from major news international organizations work out of tiny windowless rooms called “booths.” One is sometimes used for breast-feeding. “It’s like a trading desk without the elbow room,” Margaret Brennan, the CBS News White House correspondent, recently told me. “We are in sort of a closet-and-a-half behind the briefing room. It’s the smallest space you can imagine, and we’ve added more bodies because of the level of demand for information being put out every single day. Everything is at full volume all the time.”
It was the sinister genius of Donald Trump to turn the hallowed ritual of the daily briefing into his very own reality show. The press, he learned during his tabloid years in New York, is essentially a sensationalistic enterprise. On the campaign trail, he took advantage of the industry’s most self-serving impulses to inject himself hourly into the national consciousness; later, as his coverage became more negative, Trump turned the media’s outrage into ammunition for his assault on establishment pieties. His shock election seemed to confirm that the nation’s educated reportorial class, cloistered in New York and Washington, D.C., had missed one of the biggest stories of the century. With the briefing room under his control, Trump and his ill-fated stand-in, Sean Spicer, effectively hijacked the network-news cameras, turning them back on the White House press corps, making the once staid question-and-answer sessions into a daily referendum on media bias.
Many of Trump’s adversaries have made themselves willing foils. It is hardly a secret that Trump, who has done more than any U.S. president in modern times to subvert and discredit the “Failing” New York Times and the “Fake News” Washington Post, has also reinvigorated an industry that was in disrepair. Maggie Haberman has become a household name; MSNBC’s Katy Tur has turned her front-row seat to the Trump campaign into a best-selling book and an anchor seat; Jake Tapper has emerged as CNN’s world-weary conscience; and Brian Williams has re-invented himself as the new final word in prime-time. The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to welcome even more gate-crashers into the fold. Among the outlets now asking questions alongside the Associated Press, Time, and NBC News: a conservative blog called Gateway Pundit, Laura Ingraham’s Web site, LifeZette, and a teenaged “independent journalist” named Kyle Mazza who tucks his tie into the front of his pants. In Trump’s White House, when everyone’s watching, each one of these people has a chance to become a star, to win a book contract or land a CNN contributor deal, as long as they ask the right gotcha question and obtain what might be the biggest prize in White House reporting in 2017: a dopamine-rush of viral fame on Twitter.
Still, no self-respecting reporter in Washington, and few journalists working in the White House press corps, would confuse the limp jousting that happens in the briefing room as a proxy for the whole of American journalism and its simmering existential anxiety. For day-to-day journalists, the briefing is little more than a tired ritual meant to address the “news of the day,” or to supplement the other conversations and reporting happening around town. “That room has never been some kind of hub of truth-telling,” as Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor in chief, put it to me recently. “But part of the job is bearing witness and simply trying to help our audience understand what is going on.”
Even so, there is a feeling hanging over the furious, often empty spectacle of the briefing room, that the action is happening elsewhere, and that the media has become complicit in a highly choreographed distraction. The White House, for all its legislative stumbles and stage-crafted sparring with the media, appears to know this and it has benefitted from it mightily. More alarming, however, is that one could just as soon argue that the White House, no matter how ham-fisted and obfuscatory, has a more tactile understanding of what really matters in this country—and how Americans actually receive information—than those who are tasked with covering it.
The bursts of high drama, which are decidedly less spectacular under Sanders than they were with Spicer, are leavened by stretches of mundane downtime. The bodies of the briefing room spend a lot of time transcribing tape, finding a quiet corner to take a phone call, and bumping into brawny cameramen moving things around. The coolest thing to happen to Trump’s press corps this year might have been the arrival of a coffee maker gifted to them by the actor Tom Hanks in March. Journalists in the kitchen area, which sits just two feet from a pair of one-hitter bathrooms used by over 100 people, are instructed to PLEASE RINSE THE PORTAFILTER AFTER EVERY USE of the coffee machine. The food situation is bleak. Some reporters describe the lone vending machine, stocked with Mrs. Freshley’s Jumbo Honey Buns (520 Calories), as the “Wall of Death” because the junk-food offerings often become the only source of nourishment on busier days. The healthiest thing in the vending machine are cans of Bumble Bee tuna fish.
During briefings, the blue leather seats, installed during a much-needed 2007 renovation that mostly killed off a mouse infestation, are always full, assigned in a pecking order determined by the White House Correspondents’ Association, an organization that was created in 1914 by journalists to advocate for more access to White House goings-on. TV honchos sit in the front, positioned conveniently for the cameras, while
reputable print and radio organizations sit behind them, and so on. Other reporters and reporter-wannabes cram into the standing room along the aisle and in the back during press briefings, waiting for their chance to yell a question they will later tweet about with satisfaction.
The daily briefing goes something like this: for about 30 minutes every day, an expressionless Sanders walks out to the briefing-room podium, followed by a retinue of other well-dressed press aides who sit down to watch the spectacle. Sanders takes questions but does little in the way of providing answers. The questions are usually articulated in a certain open-ended way—“Sarah, what’s the White House response to X?”—that allows her to dissemble or dodge before calling on another reporter who, odds are, will almost certainly ask a different question regardless of whether Sanders answered the previous one. “Sarah tries to get through a lot of questions, to hit a broad swath of folks,” says Brennan. “But it’s also a way to avoid having to explain things. The briefings are more defense than explanation. That’s my understanding of how they are viewed as a tool.”
On October 27, a reporter asked Sanders if it was “the official White House position” that the 16 women who have who accused Trump of sexual harassment are lying. Sanders briefly said yes—addressing a topic that has mostly been ignored by the White House press since Trump’s election—and called on another reporter, John Gizzi of the conservative property Newsmax. Sexual harassment wasn’t “in the news” that day, so Gizzi didn’t bother to read the moment and press Sanders for more. He asked a question about Jimmy Carter going to North Korea. After that a reporter asked about 401(k)s. And after that, another queried about China. Then a question about Russia. Every reporter, after all, has their own question to fill in the blank for their own show or their own article. End of briefing.
In this scenario, it’s not all that different than it was in days yonder: everyone in the room wins. Reporters appear tough during the briefing, satisfying their bosses back at the bureau and their peers on Twitter. The White House looks tough, satisfying Mr. Trump and the 38 percent of Americans who support him. Let’s all get beers at the Trump Hotel tonight and do it again tomorrow. When the cameras are off, the dynamic is hardly as combative. On Halloween, Sanders walked around the press area doling out candy to the press. Smiling reporters happily posted pictures of the scene to Twitter. “There is the public relationship we have with the press,” said one White House official. “In public we are butting heads, but underneath that veil we need to have some sort of relationship with these outlets. We still have to work with outlets we don’t think are fair, otherwise their coverage would be even worse. In public we are butting heads, but there is obviously a working relationship behind closed doors.”
But, for the American public, trying to make sense of the most disruptive moment in American politics since Vietnam and Watergate, little is accomplished. The oxygen rush of the “news of the day”—and the constant need to get the White House to respond to what just happened—has always fueled the Washington press. It’s a bad habit that’s become a crisis under an administration that has perfected the art of the dodge and cares little about helping news organizations inform their audiences. Getting answers on the news of the day checks a box. Getting answers on what happened a month ago takes hard work.
Reporters in the briefing room do help out their pals every once in a while with a benevolent follow-up question if Sanders dodges their colleagues’ initial inquiry. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. And for close-watchers of the daily briefing—most of them self-hating media types—the lack of follow-ups and baseline skepticism is maddening. “The most likely explanation for why Sanders continues to lie is
because the media has proven that there’s no consequence for lying,” said Matt Negrin, a Daily Show writer who hate-watches the briefing every day and mocks the whole thing on Twitter. “Sean Spicer lied every day. Sanders lies every day. But every cable-news channel airs the briefing live every day. I guess they defend that by saying it’s ‘news,’ because the White House spokeswoman is spewing shit, so that somehow means it’s ‘newsworthy.’ It doesn’t matter how many times she lies. They’ll always take her live.”
The sugar high of daily news—the “churn,” as Brennan calls it—leaves important things unresolved. What, exactly, is happening with the travel ban right now? Did President Trump ever complete an internal investigation about whether Obama tapped his phones, or did he just make that up, leaving us to give up after two days of outrage and move on to the next controversy? As for those 16 women—shouldn’t Sanders have to answer for each one rather than having it be left behind because it’s “not new”? “In a news environment where there are dozens of stories a week that would’ve been front-page news five years ago, and in which the White House is actively advancing misinformation because they see the press as their enemy, using your platform at the White House briefing to simply ask them their opinion on the last thing that happened is asinine,” said Tim Miller, Jeb Bush’s former communications director who now carries a torch for the scattered remnants of the #NeverTrump movement. “This is a strategy that made sense when there was one news cycle a day, when you needed a bite for the nightly news that everyone watched, and when you knew that the White House at least attempted to provide answers somewhere in the ballpark of reality. None of those things are the case in 2017.”
That the Washington press defines news as “what’s new” is a huge problem in the era of Trump. It’s not a new phenomenon—the media prizes sensationalism and scoops over substance eight days a week. It’s especially true in TV news. (Trust me, I worked at CNN in Washington for a decade.) It was none other than Roger Ailes who invented the “Orchestra Pit Theory” of political-news coverage: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?,” Ailes said.
The much-heralded “newspaper war” between The New York Times and The Washington Post has produced powerful investigations and deep reporting on the policy implications of the Trump administration. So has BuzzFeed. So has ProPublica. And yes, TV networks have incredible reporters that move the ball forward on enormous stories like the opioid crisis, the regulatory rollbacks at the E.P.A. and the bizarre lassitude
of Rex Tillerson’s State Department.
But those aren’t necessarily the stories that fuel attention arbitrage—and they certainly aren’t topics on the panel discussions that chew up so much airtime on cable. It’s easier to talk about the latest report about Jared Kushner that cites “13 White House officials” complaining about him on background than it is to go deep on what Graham-Cassidy means for Medicaid spending. What’s hot on Twitter is what matters
most for the political media. And what’s hot on Twitter is light on substance.
In reality, the best strategy for pinning down Trump and the evasive members of his press team is to drill down relentlessly on a single, substantive topic. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews might not be winning a Peabody anytime soon, but he has successfully deployed this kind of multi-question barrage against Trump in March 2016, getting the then-candidate to say concretely that he believes women should be punished for having an abortion, all in the context of a meta-conversation about Catholicism.
That same month, Anderson Cooper similarly pushed Trump on the subject of education policy—revealing what we all suspected, that Trump actually knows very little about education policy. Cooper did so by pushing him multiple times during a Republican town hall. Instead of just checking a box with a question and moving on, he actually listened to Trump’s answers before responding to them with another. Why not
employ the same effort with Sanders?
A depressing answer would be that in Trump’s briefing room, when the whole country is watching, each one of these reporters has a chance to help themselves. They would never admit it in public, but in Washington in 2017, climbing the professional ladder often matters as much to reporters as getting answers from elected officials. While I was working as a national political reporter at CNN in 2015, one very talented journalist in Washington who was being recruited to join the network came to me for advice. I walked this person through the benefits and drawbacks of the newsroom, but the main question I got was this: “Do you think it would be good for my brand?”
Trump and his team understand that for the political press, the only thing that matters is what’s happening right now, not yesterday. And whether through his tweets or his surrogates in the briefing room, Trump has been largely able to bait reporters into playing his game, because he knows what makes them tick. While his Twitter habit gives him the veneer of a new media savant, Trump is really just a 71-year old white man who reads print, collects magazine covers, and gets riled up by mindless cable-news panels. A pal of mine at The New York Times calls Trump an “unfrozen media caveman.”
But he’s also a product of 1980s New York tabloid culture who understands how political journalists think and operate. And whether he learned by intent or accident, Trump is endlessly capable of exploiting the personal insecurities, professional incentives, and meager attention spans of political reporters. What’s even scarier: the Trump administration seems to understand our fractured media landscape better than we in the political media do.
Shortly before he left the White House this summer, Steve Bannon told me in an e-mail that “the past few years have seen an explosion in the new media ecosystem, and a further disintermediation of the mainstream media.” Disintermediation, of course, basically means cutting out the middleman. The Trump administration has done this with gusto, gearing their communications efforts almost exclusively to the 38 percent of Americans who like Trump and might want him re-elected. The president himself has given 20 interviews to Fox News since taking office, including a recent one with Lou Dobbs so sycophantic that Stephen Colbert called it “a full-blown rubdown.” Trump is shunning everyone else: The New York Times has, by my count, interviewed Trump four times, NBC News three times, CNN and CBS News just once. The mainstream press, ever pious, very much cares about this. The plurality of Americans who support Trump and might get him re-elected don’t give a shit.
But Bannon, long familiar with the dark corners of the Internet, was hip to something else beyond the fading TV wars: Americans are just getting information today in different ways—not from the evening news or the morning papers, but from platforms, podcasts, partisan Web sites, even gamer forums and subReddits—and the ground is moving under our feet every day. In 2013, just half of Americans said they got news from mobile devices. Today, it’s 85 percent of Americans, a remarkable leap in just four years. Nearly 70 percent of Americans now report getting news from social media.
I interviewed Barack Obama about this topic shortly before he left office for my Snapchat show, Good Luck America. The news, as Obama described it, was being “chopped up.” He was doing the interview in the first place because he understood that young people are growing up in a radically different information environment than the one that most people in Washington occupy.
When I travel the country for my reporting, I often interview college students, and usually make time to inquire about the last time they watched a cable-news panel or a Sunday talk show. The query is usually met with a furrowed brow and a remark about how they don’t even own a television, let alone how to find Morning Joe on a cable scroll. A journalism student at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication recently laughed in my face—literally, he thought I was joking—when I asked him if he and his friends ever watched TV news. These are are not ignorant kids—these are smart, informed, and earnest young people. Like most Americans, they just experience the news differently than most of the people who actually work in news.
Whether Trump is thinking on this level or not, people in his orbit know that in the minds of the American public—which follows the permutations of the journalism business as closely as they follow New Zealand cricket standings—little is actually going right for the media. Only 21 percent of U.S. adults say national news organizations are doing a very good job of keeping them informed, according to Pew. You might have guessed that the numbers are grim among Republicans: only 11 percent of them say the news is trustworthy. But it’s bad among Trump opponents, too—only 34 percent of Democrats say the national news is to be trusted. Whether it came to this realization via strategy or pure id, the White House understands that while the media has a high opinion of itself and and even higher opinion of its tweets, the public most certainly does not.
The political media has failed to reckon with its biggest, most enduring challenge, which has nothing to do with revenue or audience growth or cord-cutters. The political press is facing a crisis of substance—and it’s not just poisoning the public’s perception of journalism, it’s playing right into Trump’s hands. Pew looked into what the mainstream media covered in the first four months of the Trump administration, analyzing
over 3,000 stories from 24 different news organizations including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Politico, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and others. The most covered topic? The president’s “political skills.”
A grand total of 39 other topics—including women’s rights, poverty, civil rights, and the war in Afghanistan—garnered barely a mention, making up less than 4 percent of coverage. What’s even more depressing: actual American citizens made up only 5 percent of the people interviewed for these stories. The rest were Trump officials, members of Congress, “experts” and other journalists. The study is a grim reminder than Washington is obsessed with itself, to the detriment of the public.
Harvard professor Tom Patterson, one of the country’s sharpest media critics, wrote in 1994, that “the news is not a mirror held up to society.” It’s still true today. Political reporters, incentivized by scoops and flattery from their colleagues, are not trained to listen to illuminate issues for the American public. They care about what their peer group cares about: politics. Their first instincts are look for what’s new or different in the events of the past 24 hours. Who’s up, who’s down, what do the polls say?
Patterson calls this the “game schema”—the long-standing tendency of the press to cover everything through the prism of conflict or palace intrigue. In the minds of journalists, there are no good actors in politics or government, only craven decisions motivated by greed or self-interest. It’s no surprise then, that the press becomes the boy who cried wolf when things actually go off the rails. “When every question is a potential trap and every response is ripped apart, the voters become inured to the press’s admonitions,” Patterson warned in his still-relevant book Out Of Order. “And when the media do make an allegation worthy of the public’s concern, people only half listen and half believe.”
This was on display in March, when the Trump administration abruptly dismissed 46 U.S. attorneys. The gut reaction of the Washington press, increasingly populated by younger reporters who haven’t covered a previous administration, was that the firings were yet another sign of Trump’s ascendant demagoguery, “a highly unusual move,” according to Politico. In reality, every new administration replaces U.S. attorneys, who are political appointees. Trump is hostile to our political and institutional norms in so many ways, but when even the normal stuff is treated as sinister, Americans begin to tune out.
The posture of the political journalist has devolved from skepticism into outright cynicism at almost every turn, no matter which party is being scrutinized. This battlefield only helps Trump, because it turns everyone off to the process. And when the public loses interest, people in power have a field day. Journalists are left to do the hard work of holding elected officials accountability, and many of them they are doing their best. It would just be nice if we were talking about what happened last week, last month, last winter—and not just what happened in our mentions a few minutes ago when some other reporter tweeted “WOW!” with a finger emoji pointing to Trump’s latest distraction.
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