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Here’s Why the White House Press Corps Has Outlived Its Usefulness

Donald Trump, Melania TrumpDonald Trump, Melania Trump
Melania Trump, right, looks on as her husband President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters during a New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Evan Vucci AP

A number of important issues surround President-elect Donald Trump as he prepares to take office including potential conflicts of interest involving his business empire. Given that, it seems more crucial than ever for the press to keep a close eye on him and the actions of his new administration.

But is the traditional White House press corps the best way to do that?

Historically, the White House beat was seen as a plum assignment for the best in the profession. It was filled with a daily flood of newsworthy events, close-up meetings with the president, and access to behind-the-scenes color that informed the way the nation saw the president and his administration. But much of that has changed in the era of always-on social media, to the point where some wonder whether the traditional press corps has outlived its usefulness.

In a recent column, Poynter Institute’s managing editor Ben Mullin argues that time has passed the press corps by. The “confined, ritualistic nature of the White House beat makes it a difficult slog for even the most adversarial reporter,” he says, and with dozens of journalists jockeying for the same stories, very little unique coverage emerges.

Mullin notes that most of the major stories we associate with previous administrations, including blockbuster events like Watergate and the NSA spying scandal, came from outside the White House, and didn’t have anything to do with the traditional press corps. He goes on to quote American University journalism professor W. Joseph Campbell:

“Given the tightly regulated nature of the White House press corps, it’s probably a safe bet the most adversarial, or most embarrassing, stories about the next administration won’t come from reporters assigned to cover the White House,” Campbell said.

If anything, the recent behavior of the press “pool” has made it even harder to justify. Complaints about not getting a plane ride to an event, or being ditched so the president-elect can have dinner with friends, ring a little hollow even if you don’t care for Donald Trump. Do we really need half a dozen reporters to tell us whether Trump had beef or chicken?

It’s not just the highly regulated or ritualistic nature of the White House briefing process that makes the job difficult. Reporters who spend a long time on the beat often find themselves getting close to or friendly with senior government officials, and even the president himself— relationships that can make it hard to be tough in their reporting. John F. Kennedy took great advantage of this phenomenon, as did other presidents.

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The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a classic example: A fancy party in which the journalists who cover the president and his senior officials drink and dine with them, laugh at their jokes, and get their pictures taken. And the press corps’ eagerness to have off-the-record briefings with Trump or attend parties at his Mar-a-Lago retreat doesn’t help.

On top of that kind of thing, the whole nature of political coverage has changed dramatically. The static morning briefing has gradually been overshadowed by continual updates on the news, either through scoops handed to specific outlets or via news alerts and announcements released by the White House itself— in some cases through blog posts, Twitter, and other alternative methods.

President Obama was the first to push the envelope in that sense, to the point where some senior media executives have grumbled about the administration doing an “end run” around the traditional process. The president, however, clearly saw it as taking his message directly to the people—an approach that Donald Trump is likely to ramp up even further.

As Mullin notes, the incoming president’s ability to avoid the mainstream press and get his message out via Twitter, Facebook and other social media makes the Obama administration look like an old man trying to figure out how to use Snapchat. The president-elect got more than $2 billion worth of free publicity thanks to this strategy, according to the New York Times.

These are all of Trump’s potential conflicts of interest:

The Times and the Washington Post have beefed up their presidential press teams, adding more reporters to cover the administration. They would undoubtedly argue that being “on the ground” at the White House provides unparalleled access, as well as the potential to provide more understanding about what goes on behind the scenes, and to potentially break news.

But given Trump’s notoriously hostile relationship with the press—which led him to ban certain outlets from his campaign events, muse openly about loosening up libel laws, and repeatedly refer to “the dishonest media”—it’s worth wondering whether being at the White House will actually produce anything of value. Reporters might get ignored up close rather than farther away, but that’s about it.

Wouldn’t all that time on planes and in briefings be better spent digging through tax returns or talking to disgruntled civil servants elsewhere? That’s what David Farenthold of the Washington Post did using a notepad, his Twitter account, and a lot of shoe leather. Would it have made his job easier if he had been part of the White House press pool? No. It would have made it much harder. As Mullin argues, the best way to cover Trump may be to stay out of the White House.