How the Trump White House can fix its communications problem
Posted June 21
Rumors swirl anew that the White House may further curtail or even cancel the on-camera daily press briefing, leaning more on off-camera gaggles. This would be a mistake for several reasons. But before we get to those reasons, let's consider why this discussion is happening in the first place.
From the White House perspective, the briefings have become somewhat of a spectacle -- a live game of "gotcha" journalism where every word is parsed for nuance and any meaningful discussion of the President's agenda is cast aside for heated questioning about whatever scandal dominates the headlines that day.
"The nice thing about turning the cameras off sometimes," Press Secretary Sean Spicer told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham Wednesday morning, "is that it is not 'performance art' ... that you end up having, I think sometimes, a more substantive discussion about actual issues because they're not trying to get their clip. They're not trying to figure out, 'How do I get on TV?'"
In other words, the briefing has become a bit of a circus. And the White House is not entirely wrong about that.
But it is partly to blame for it.
The hectoring from the podium, the hyperbole, the cries of "Fake News," the disrespect shown not only for the profession of journalism but for individual journalists themselves, and the frequent inability -- or unwillingness -- to answer simple questions all have turned what should be an adversarial environment into a needlessly combative one.
That's right -- it should be an adversarial environment. The daily press briefing is not just an opportunity to deliver the President's message or advance his agenda. It's also an opportunity to explain his decisions, to put them in context and to wring them out through rigorous inquiry by a free press that is translating them for people all over the world.
Journalism is a rough-and-tumble profession, maybe more so now than ever. Reporters challenge -- and want to know -- everything. And they want to know it all now. As one of my predecessors at the Pentagon put it many years ago, "The press tends to go to extremes, and the responsible press exhibits extremism in pursuit of truth, which is a virtue."
This virtue means the briefings are going to get ugly every now and then, especially if the policies or the decisions aren't sound or cannot be effectively defended. But that's healthy for the people those policies affect, as well as for the policymaking process itself.
There's this strange fascination over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about communicating without the filter of the press. Impossible. It doesn't work that way.
To be sure, Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools allow the President -- or anyone else for that matter -- to inject something quickly into the public bloodstream, but whatever he says is going to be quickly reported out by the media, analyzed and criticized by pundits, and then put to his communications team for further explanation.
It is the press coverage of the President's tweets that give them relevance and reach. Even if every one of his 32 million followers were real people -- and they are not -- and if all of them lived in the United States, he'd still only reach, at maximum, one tenth of the US population with any given tweet.
Moreover, President Trump should want that critical press coverage. No message or policy, no matter how it is originally conveyed, is ever going to be as durable or as credible as that which can survive the scrutiny of independent reporting.
Indeed, he might find, as we often did at the Pentagon and the State Department, that good journalism exposes gaps in your thinking and flaws in your planning. It makes you smarter.
And that takes us right back to the briefings.
Doing them every day and on camera keeps the administration current and relevant with the world around it. It's not just about reacting to events, it's about helping shape those events by inserting the voice of the American government proactively, authoritatively and peremptorily.
Many was the day we strode to the podium at the State Department with a strong message about political protests in sub-Saharan Africa, Israeli settlement growth in Palestine, electoral reform in Latin America, press freedom in Turkey, or judicial proceedings in a Middle Eastern country -- all with the design not only to send a strong message about America's interests, but also to help alter the decision-making of foreign leaders. During a crisis, the spokesperson can assuage a shaken populace, reassure an ally, and perhaps even deter a potential foe.
And images matter -- a lot. We live in a TV era, after all, where news is far more likely to be digested if accompanied by video. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, almost two-thirds of US adults watched videos online and more than half of those (36%) watched news videos. They also found that nearly half of adults ages 18 to 29 watched online news video.
Our press briefings at the State Department reached millions of people around the world through live television and online viewing. And we backed them up with aggressive social media outreach during and afterward.
Remember, the administration's on-camera briefings thus far have been taken live -- which means that White House officials don't have to contend with reporters breaking into the coverage with instant reaction or analysis. Talk about injecting messages right into the bloodstream. This is it.
Denying oneself this advantage, particularly in a hypercharged information environment, makes little practical sense.
As one veteran White House reporter told me, "Briefings are an almost entirely unmediated opportunity for an administration to get out its message without contradiction or argument. Reporters' questions are a fig leaf to cover what amounts to an hourlong presidential infomercial."
There will surely be some who, frustrated by the lack of candor and content in White House briefings, dismiss any curtailment of them. Since they are of little value, they will argue, what's the use of having them?
It's a good point. But it lets the administration off too easily.
Interactions with the media, like it or not, are obligations of those in public service. They demonstrate the degree to which our government is fully accountable to the American people it serves.
CNN's Jim Acosta summed up this notion admirably in an exchange with Brooke Baldwin on Monday:
"Maybe I'm old-fashioned," he said, expressing frustration that the White House hosted an off-camera, no audio gaggle that day, "but I think the White House for the United States of America should have these questions answered on camera so we can see what they're saying. And when they don't do this they're doing a disservice to the people of this country."
He's absolutely right.
And while there is no law mandating a daily press briefing, of course, taking it off the air will also leave a vacuum in what should be a sober discussion of domestic and foreign affairs. This White House may never be able to credibly fill that vacuum by itself, but we can be assured that propaganda organs and our adversaries will only too gladly try.
In Tuesday's briefing -- the first televised briefing since June 12 -- Spicer said they are "always looking for ways of doing a better job of articulating the President's agenda."
Good. We should encourage that effort, even applaud it. But it's foolish to throw away one of the best arrows they have in their quiver. In the search for better ways to articulate the President's agenda, the answer shouldn't be no or even fewer briefings. It should be better briefings.