As you may have noticed these past 20 months, anything Donald Trump is TV ratings gold because, love him or hate him, so many want to watch the unpredictable rich man. During the campaigns Trump was out there almost every day for everyone to see and cheer and deride.
But now that he’s in the Oval Office those opportunities are more scarce. So, what’s the media to do?
The next best thing is his press secretary, Sean Spicer, whose televised daily press briefings have now become daytime ratings hits. Every president has a press secretary. Every press secretary walks a difficult line, charged with elaborating the boss’ thinking and selling his message of the day and sparring with Washington media, who are always looking for trouble. The press secretary needs to be trusted by both sides, not an easy task when one side works so hard to attack, distort and alienate the other. (You decide which side that is.)
But not every press secretary has a president like this one, a man who is his own controversial spokesman on Twitter many mornings and a man whose statements are often based more on shifting beliefs than bolted-down facts. This unorthodox public figure can drive reporters crazy and send them off chasing obscure fact-checks instead of covering more substantial stories. Which could be his point.
Spicer is a 45-year-old Rhode Island native who’s also a commander in the Navy Reserve. The father of two has a long record in congressional communications and in early 2011 took over as communication director at the Republican National Committee. He also became chief strategist for Chairman Reince Priebus, now Trump’s chief of staff.
After a rocky early time last month arguing over inaugural crowd sizes, Spicer has moved to shake up briefing operations and enlarge White House presence via social media, as he did at the RNC. He now takes questions from media folks in flyover country via Skype.
Even in the briefing room, where reporters have reserved seats, Spicer has broken tradition by not calling on network or AP questioners first. The very first questioner was the New York Post, a tabloid in Trump’s hometown disdained by media elite. Next was the Christian Broadcasting Network, then Univision.
Spicer said such lesser-known outlets bring an important question variety to the message mix. Given a rare moment of prominence with their topic — who knows? — these outlets might also be more sympathetic than usual media suspects like CBS or CNN, which Trump has targeted several times.
Still, so strong is viewer interest in Trump so far, any of them gobble up anything Trump. Two favorite examples were CNN on-screen headlines teasing in audiences: “Trump speaks to CNN” and “Trump to speak at any moment,” as if he was descending from the mountain.
No wonder. Nielsen reports the almost-daily Sean Spicer afternoon show routinely attracts more than four million viewers via cable networks, outdrawing some veteran soap operas with a new one. “You either tune in to watch Sean defend the indefensible or to watch media bias in action, ” GOP political operative Alex Conant told the N.Y. Times.
The original purpose of White House briefings was to elaborate on presidential messaging for a couple hundred White House media reps. The beauty of Spicer’s televised briefings is his messages now go straight over their heads unfiltered directly to millions of Americans. C-SPAN’s video archive contains every briefing too for anytime viewing.
An added benefit for Trump, now Spicer takes many of the lightning bolts that would be directed at the president.