Depending on whom you listen to, the White House press corps is either the last bulwark of democracy and freedom, keeping its eagle eye on the corridors of power, or a pack of lapdogs who laugh at the press secretary’s jokes in the hope of getting preferential treatment.
The reality is that you can find ample evidence for both of those viewpoints in almost any administration, and there is certainly plenty available already in relation to the still-young Trump government.
President Trump, however, has made the process of reporting on the White House even more unstable by adding a Game of Thrones-style approach to it.
This process began from the moment Trump took office, when press secretary Sean Spicer started talking about moving the press corps from its traditional place in the West Wing.
Spicer and others also started talking about how they wanted to bring in “new blood” to the White House press corps. The press secretary began including Skype interviewers from rural newspapers and other media outlets in briefings, as well as reporters from non-traditional or conservative sites such as Newsmax and the Heritage Foundation.
As a piece in the New Yorker notes, this has triggered a kind of immune system response in the traditional members of the press corps.
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“Personally, I don’t even mind them f***ing with the front-row guys, the Jonathan Karls of the world. Those guys are a smug little cartel, and it’s fun to watch them squirm, at least for a little while,” one reporter said. “But at what point does it start to de-legitimize the whole idea of what happens in that room? When does it cross the line into pure trolling?”
It’s no coincidence that the press secretary has also excluded specific mainstream news outlets from his “gaggle” briefings, which take place in his office instead of the briefing room. BuzzFeed, CNN, and the BBC were all excluded—all three of which had reported aggressively on Trump’s ties to Russia and been called out for doing so by Spicer and Trump.
The result of all these moves—especially when combined with Trump’s regular tweets and comments about “fake news” and the “failing New York Times“—is a press corps that is even more on edge than usual, and in some cases prone to turn on each other.
In one recent exchange, for example, Fox News radio reporter Jon Decker reportedly accosted or at least loudly criticized the appearance of Lucian Wintrich, a writer for a site called Gateway Pundit, at one of Spicer’s briefings.
Wintrich claimed Decker grabbed him, something Decker has denied. But those present say Decker talked loudly about how Gateway Pundit “hates blacks, Jews, and Hispanics.”
A TV correspondent who is in the pool told the New Yorker the traditional predictability of the press corps process has been “thrown into chaos” by the arrival of these new players and the press secretary’s behavior. And that “makes everyone desperate and competitive and makes us look like a bunch of braying jackals. Which I don’t think is an accident.”
The Trump administration’s strategy, which appears to be the brainchild of Trump advisor Steve Bannon, is obviously to expand the pool of reporters who make up the press corps, in order to bring in more conservative views. But a side benefit is that doing so has destabilized and upset the existing entities in the pool, and thrown at least some off their game.
In a recent essay to the American media, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev referred to the way that press conferences have evolved in that country. “It’s in [the president’s] best interests to pit you against each other, fighting over artificial scarcities like room space, mic time or, of course, his attention,” he said.
Even before Trump came along, there were those who argued that the White House press corps had already outlived its usefulness, and his presence has only added fuel to those beliefs. Better to spend time and resources on hard reporting outside the White House, rather than playing lapdog to those in power, or so the argument usually goes.
It didn’t help the press corps’ case when many of those present for a Spicer briefing laughed uproariously after the press secretary quoted Trump as saying previous job reports were fake, but the current one (which made him look good) was true. This struck many as a classic example of the lack of perspective that such close access encourages.
For many of those currently in the pool, dealing with a president and administration that appears to be actively hostile to the press may be unfamiliar territory. The Obama government at least pretended to like the media, although it was arguably as unfriendly when it counted (such as responding to information requests or putting journalists on trial).
One way to deal with an administration like that is to simply go along for the ride and not ask too many questions. That way you get to keep your seat in the press room, and you get access to off-the-record briefings.
Even if you do this, however, there’s every likelihood that the Trump administration will ignore you anyway if you come from a traditional news outlet, and instead give preferential treatment to a conservative website that they know shares their viewpoint on an issue. And that is something with which many mainstream media entities don’t really have a strategy for overcoming.