From George Washington’s time to the cable and digital news era – press has always been an integral part of the White House. In the 1800s, reporters waited outside Abraham Lincoln’s White House offices, hoping to gather a piece of the latest news. In 1969, the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room was established and in 1995, Press Secretary Mike McCurry started the practice of televised press briefings.
The press briefings started with the intention of keeping the public informed and pushing the government’s message in order to gather public support. One of the most positive aspects of the daily press briefings was the establishment of a frequent and direct communication channel between the White House and journalists, which allowed the latter to hold the president and their administration accountable for their policies and activities. But in Donald J. Trump’s era, even though press briefings take place almost every day, they don’t yield any fruitful communication. In my opinion, the press briefings are currently just a façade and simply useless.
The useful tool of communication between the government and the general public took a devastating blow at the very first press briefing by Trump’s administration, when then Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the president’s statement about the size of the inaugural crowd. Over the next six months, Spicer failed to regain his credibility and continued his rebuttal with the press, until he ultimately resigned in July last year.
Sarah Sanders succeeded Spicer and has been fighting and attempting to defend the president ever since. Her approach might be different than Spicer’s, but one thing is clear: if you are a mouthpiece of Trump’s administration, you cannot tell the truth and you have to defend your boss in any way and at any cost. This leaves the question as to what the use of a press briefing is when you know in advance that your questions will not receive truthful answers.
Every now and then, when I watch the press briefing, I feel like I am watching the same episode of a TV show on a loop. Even though the questions from the reporters change, the answers remain the same. To me, it feels like we live in a world of talking parrots who have the ability to speak but only with a narrow vocabulary of just 2000 words. Every single time I watch the press briefing, I hear the same lines: “we don’t have any policy announcements at this time,” “the president has been very vocal about this from the beginning and I don’t have anything to add,” “the American people spoke by electing Trump as their president,” “we are building the wall, “ISIS is on the run,” and “the stock markets are on an all-time high” (which in reality took a lot of nosedives in the recent past), and “the unemployment rates are at their lowest.”
Especially this last line is used multiple times in every press briefing and acts as a shield against all the questions that the spokespeople don’t want to answer or have no answer for. No matter what the question is, they find a way to use this line by twisting, turning, and spinning it.
I understand the frustration the journalists in that press room are going through every single day. Watching them constantly pulling their hair out in frustration makes it a wonder that they haven’t developed gaping bald patches or receding hairlines.
There are hardly any policy announcements or messages delivered during the press briefing because the actual briefing takes place very early through Trump’s Twitter account. The White House’s press briefing is spent on defending those tweets or other occasional statements made by the president, for example, on Air Force One or during his rallies and events.
So, what’s the point of having a press briefing attended by the crème de la crème of the journalistic community when we know nothing comes out of it? The same answers are given over and over again. The journalists ask about apples but receive answers about bananas.
Even if questions are supplemented with facts, it doesn’t make a difference to the talking parrots. They are aware their vocabulary is constrained and know the drill. No matter what, they will repeat their lines.