Reince Priebus: We might be doing some things differently with the daily press briefing

Skip to 12:00 of the clip below from this morning’s Hugh Hewitt Show for a soundbite that set off a minor panic among reporters on Twitter.

HH: Last two questions have to do with the media. First of all, instead of that boring Saturday morning radio address, I think the President should do a Friday morning drive time nationally syndicated show each week, you know, in the morning when you can shape news. Don’t you agree?

RP: Well, you know, what? Look, I think that many things have to change, and I think that it’s important that we look at all of those traditions that are great, but quite frankly, as you know, don’t really make news…

HH: No.

RP: And they’re just sort of…

HH: It’s horrible.

RP: …mundane, boring episodes. And you know, even looking at things like the daily White House briefing from the press secretary, I mean, there’s a lot of different ways that things can be done, and I can assure you we’re looking at that.

What made media types nervous was Priebus’s reaction to the idea of Trump hosting his own weekly radio show as a way of reaching voters, suddenly wondering aloud about the fate of the White House daily briefing. A radio show would be fine as a supplement to press briefings; Trump will no doubt build on Obama’s innovations, on TV and online, in bringing his message directly to the public without needing some journalist midwifing his statements on policy via Q&A. A radio show in lieu of press briefings would be a bad idea, though, as it would eliminate the opportunity for some adversarial group to question the White House on daily goings-on in the government. Even if you like that prospect because you hate the media, you might not like it once a Democrat is back in office. As the left is finding out lately to its discomfort (most notably with eliminating the filibuster), the precedents you set when you’re in power have a habit of coming back to haunt you.

Just because a daily briefing of some sort should be held, though, doesn’t mean the usual televised daily briefing we’re all used to should continue in its current form. The cat-and-mouse game between the press secretary, who’s usually a practiced master of the PR non-answer, and the press corps, which is forever trying to catch him in a soundbite gotcha, rarely produces meaningful news. We post clips of it from time to time, but usually for dramatic purposes — there’s a contentious exchange between Josh Earnest and Jake Tapper, say, and Earnest seems more evasive than usual, and ooooh, what is the White House hiding? And then everyone forgets about it and on we go. Virtually nothing substantive ever gets said; as Dave Weigel half-joked about cutting the daily briefing, “What to do without an hour of a WH spox saying ‘I think that’s a question for the Speaker/FBI/State’ etc”? A less formal off-camera briefing like a daily gaggle might be better for both sides, for the same reason that the Supreme Court opposes cameras during oral arguments. Absent the temptation to grandstand for the audience at home, the participants can focus on business. A press secretary who knows he/she isn’t on camera would only be more inclined to candor, I think. Reporters who know they aren’t on camera won’t feel as compelled to go for a gotcha. You might get — gasp — an actual productive conversation out of it. It could end up as a boon for print media too since the public would have to read about the latest White House statements instead of watching the usual 10-second non-answer on the evening news.

But that’s also the main weakness of the idea. If you think we’ve entered an age where video is really the only way to penetrate the public’s news awareness, then maybe getting that 10-second “no comment” clip from the press secretary to a question about whether Trump is prepared to let Putin annex Ukraine is the only way to keep voters informed. How little faith do you have in the electorate? Do you think they’re fundamentally stupid and don’t read news? Then, by all means, let’s keep the cat-and-mouse show going. Or, as a better televised alternative, how about a daily hour-long on-camera interview of the press secretary with a rotating crew of, say, three reporters? That more conversational arrangement might also mitigate some of the performance pressure created by the camera.

I think the real reason the media fears any change to the daily televised briefing is because they know Trump is looking for excuses to insulate himself from press scrutiny. If you get rid of the televised briefing, maybe that paves the way for getting rid of the daily briefing altogether in a year or two, and maybe that in turn paves the way for getting rid of presidential press conferences. Suddenly the White House isn’t answering any challenging questions from anyone. I think “Trump might capitalize if we end this lame tradition!” is a lame reason to perpetuate a lame tradition, but as a Trump skeptic myself, I wouldn’t put anything past him. As long as the press has some consistent pipeline to question the White House, that’s the important thing.

In any case, I agree with Ed that Reince wasn’t talking about eliminating the daily briefing. He went on to discuss the seating arrangement for reporters, not changing the entire format. (The transition team is reportedly close to naming a press secretary, in fact.) I don’t think they’ll do something wildly unorthodox. Why should they? The whole point here is that no one pays much attention to the briefing, especially vis-a-vis what Trump himself has to say in interviews or at rallies. If it makes the press happy to get the official daily runaround, sure, Team Trump will throw them that bone.

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