Every week, when my wife and I go grocery shopping, I stop in the seafood section at the tank where the handcuffed lobsters swim, swarming over each other, and I say out loud, “Okay fellas, midnight and I’m busting you out.” Sometimes this is greeted with a smattering of laughter by the other shoppers. Some look at me strangely, and my wife ultimately rolls her eyes as she’s seen me do this bit many times. “Why do you do it?” she asks.
Last weekend, after blowing up the G-7 meeting in Canada, President Donald Trump held his first solo news conference in more than a year. Only those covering the G-7 got a chance to question our president, but it was a step up from the chance encounters we get in stray rooms of the White House and on the South Lawn as if the president were Jack Cassidy in a Columbo episode.
The president rushed through the news conference on his way to Singapore to meet a North Korean despot, dropping little nuggets of information resembling what my puppy used to leave on the carpet before he was properly trained. CNN is still fake news and Obama is responsible for Russia invading Crimea while Russia should be let back into the G-7—well, just because.
At the end of the conference, a reporter asked the president why he constantly attacks the press. “There are many people in the press that are unbelievably dishonest. They don’t cover stories the way they’re supposed to be,” the president said. Trump doesn’t care that he really can’t have the right to tell us how to cover the news. If we only report that which he enjoys, that’s called propaganda—exactly what the president wants.
His latest angry pronouncement came at the end of another week of full court pressure by the administration against the free press. Appearing with Chris Cuomo on CNN this week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders launched into a withering attack claiming the press corps continues to report on the “Witch Hunt” and avoids reporting on real issues while attacking the president’s credibility. As for her credibility, she claimed it is better than most reporters. “Don’t tell us how to stage the news and we won’t tell you how to report it,” Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes once said.
The truth is, in many ways, the White House press corps is a victim of its own perceived self-importance.
Cuomo and reporters in the briefing room tried in vain to get her to admit to passing along erroneous information. She didn’t budge from her often spouted line of referring us to the president’s outside attorney turned court jester Rudy Giuliani.
Sanders repeatedly takes cheap shots at the press, including accusing Cuomo of not being sensitive to veterans. To his credit, Cuomo didn’t let it go and pushed back against her false narrative. In some cases, Sanders does this because she is playing to the Audience of One. But it is also her default setting. Her baseline is to defend the president no matter what. As a true believer, she bends the facts to fit her and her president’s needs. She screams of a “Witch Hunt” while the Trump administration sanctioned 13 Russians indicted by Mueller. She claims to know what the American people want and acts as if Trump won with a mandate when he did not.
She claims to want to discuss issues, but the president’s and her credibility remain important issues they don’t want to discuss. She wants to know why reporters often ask the same question many times, but refuses to acknowledge the president hasn’t answered the questions we continue to ask (merely speaking words at the end of a question doesn’t qualify as an answer), or in some cases she and the president have given us multiple answers to the questions we’ve asked.
There are many more instances of the disingenuous nature of this White House, and I’ve often been questioned as to why reporters continue to stand for this nonsense. The truth is, in many ways, the White House press corps is a victim of its own perceived self-importance. While many admit the rules have changed under Trump, most reporters continue to operate under the old rules of engagement. Those actions were problematic nearly a century ago when H.L. Mencken wrote, “A few clumsy overtures from the White House, and they are rattled and undone. They come in as newspaper men, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tin-horn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.”
Some editors and managers live in absolute fear of getting a call from the White House telling them their access may be limited or cut off because their reporter pushed too hard. Some of those editors and managers idly dream or actually indulge in rounds of golf with the president.
When I first walked into the White House in 1986, Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson took me under their wing. Donaldson pointed out how much institutional knowledge resided in the reporters who covered the White House and how I should seek out their knowledge. In just the first row of seven chairs in the press room, Donaldson told me there was well more than 200 years of institutional knowledge. “Of course some say that most of that is with Helen,” he joked as he smiled at Thomas.
But Donaldson and Thomas reminded me often as a young reporter that we are not friends with the White House. We are disinterested third-party observers. We can be friendly, polite and even cordial, but we are not friends and can’t be to those we cover. Watching the both of them pound on the doors of a variety of press secretaries, I can assure you no one ever accused either Donaldson or Thomas of being “too close” to those they covered.
Today’s younger reporters do not have the benefit of the tutelage I had, and seem very self-assured in their endeavors. While many solid reporters cover the White House, there is a lack of institutional knowledge compared to the mid-1980s and that has taken a huge toll. Ryan is right; some are enamored of a friendship with those we cover, and that is exacerbated by the fact there are fewer tenured reporters teaching the younger reporters the ropes and some of the younger reporters don’t believe they need the wisdom of those with more experience.
There is also a problem of self-important reporters who believe they should just keep their heads down and do the job the way they’ve always done it, even as they acknowledge the president has changed the rules of engagement with reporters. Some believe they’ll be accused of self aggrandizement should they push back. Some arrogantly believe they are more important than the issues they cover.
It is this elitist bent that can be the most dangerous for reporters and part of the reason why many still cannot grasp why Donald Trump is president. The White House itself remains a huge problem. “You are at a disadvantage,” Donaldson told me recently. “At least when I was at the White House, I wasn’t told I was the enemy of the people.”
Today, reporters struggle to produce news while the presidential press secretary claims she has more credibility than reporters, though she’s often told us things that later have proven to be untrue. I asked Sanders recently if anyone in the administration had ever asked the president to back away from Twitter, even for a day. She admonished reporters for being distracted and reporting on what the president tweets while skipping over the vital news of the day. The White House has already said whatever the president tweets is policy, so we really have little choice but to report what he tweets. But as we were told Crimea was President Obama’s fault, reporting what the president tweets is now our fault.
How dare we report what the president says? At least Sanders admitted the president’s tweets are distractions. You take your victories where you can.
It is obvious the press office is understaffed, lacks the institutional knowledge of how the office works and is arrogant in the way it communicates with the public. One day, as I stood in the upper press area outside of Sanders’ office, I was told I should leave. Sanders wouldn’t talk to me. I waited. Again I was urged to leave “our offices.”
In point of fact, I reminded the young wrangler that these offices were the people’s house and belonged to us all. “Now I bathe and I’m relatively quiet as I wait, so if it is my mere presence which bothers you, then all I can say is I was here before you got here and I’ll be here after you leave.”
I’ve been asked why the entire press corps doesn’t rise up in unison and march out in protest during one of Sanders’ news briefings. I’ve also often been asked, by a variety of people including CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, why we don’t follow up each other’s questions during the briefings more than we do.
Walking out together hand in hand sounds romantic, but it’s a foolish gesture. The president would love nothing more than to see an empty press room so he could tweet to his heart’s desire and have unfettered access to spreading his excesses. Besides, it would never work. The press isn’t a unified lump of inert clay. The press room consists of many competing factors—all of which I respect—but the fact is should some of us decide to walk out in protest, there would be plenty of folks ready to fall in and get some time asking questions.
Where we can improve our performance is helping each other out—the point Blitzer asked me about, and which many others have asked. We can follow up on each other’s questions better than we do. That requires us to listen to Sanders carefully and not let her off the hook when she begins spinning like a child’s top from the podium.
We have done it well on some occasions and not so well at other times. It is a problematic endeavor and it boils down to a couple of crucial issues. The very nature of the chaos at the White House is such that on any given day there are more than a dozen issues we are covering. While past administrations would put one ball into play and watch it carefully, the Trump administration resembles a kid who walks up to a gumball machine, whacks it with a bat and watches all the gumballs scatter. That environment makes it exceedingly hard to keep your eye on just one issue.
While previous administrations would take an hour or more in the briefing, Sanders is notorious for standing at the podium and fielding questions for about 15 minutes following her introductory remarks praising the president, her children or reading a letter from a constituent. The briefings routinely occur far later than their scheduled time, prompting me and others to go back and demand Sanders come out and face the 100 or so people in the room waiting.
One of my favorite engagements with the staff when I asked if Sanders was coming out any time soon was when a wrangler replied, “If I tell you, then you’re just going to tell everyone else.”
Precisely. I sure wasn’t in there for the company.
At the end of the day, it becomes very difficult for us to help each other out as we try to cover as many issues as we can in the brief amount of time we have. There is little hope this particular problem will get better any time soon as the Mueller investigation and a host of tawdry scandals keeps the administration in a bunker mentality trying to control the access to information while the president lashes out at our allies and praises our enemies. Being called the enemy of the people is not nearly as threatening to the press as the ongoing dismantling of the first amendment is to the foundation of our republic. Reporters need to be wary of any attempt by the White House to subjugate and destroy our independence, for again Mencken warned us, “The danger is that the hopeless voter, forever victimized by his false assumption about politicians, may in the end gather such ferocious indignation that he will abolish them totally and at one insane swoop, and so cause government by the people, for the people and with the people to perish from this earth.”
This weekend, I found myself at the grocery store encouraging the lobsters again to get ready for the midnight break out. My wife chuckled and also asked me why I persist in such inane silliness. At first I thought I had the answer: The White House press corps are the lobsters. But after rereading the Mencken quote, I’m not so sure the lobsters don’t represent everyone in the United States.