Monday, December 26, 2016

Something to Know - 26 December

Jeff Danziger

Read though this story in today's NY Times, and interpret it any way you want.  However, I read it as how a thin-skinned ego-motivated blowhard of a president is going to put reporters and the media behind a WALL that will not nag him.   The new president thinks that he can just skate through his new job by Tweeting his way from day to day.  The last thing he needs or want is a reporter on full TV coverage asking him to account for his behavior and that of his administration.  The media is there to represent the the people of this country, and we deserve the format that has covered the office of the president in the past.  Any antagonistic disregard of the media by the White House is bad for the country, and will have unintended consequences:

Changes Coming to White House Press Room: Who, Where, When and How

The last briefing in the White House's James S. Brady Press Briefing Room before it underwent extensive renovations. President George W. Bush, Laura Bush and an array of former White House press secretaries attended the event in 2006. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
With the naming of Sean Spicer as White House press secretary, Donald J. Trump has selected a Republican Party insider and communications veteran.

But that doesn't mean it will be business as usual for the press corps that covers the next administration.

Mr. Trump's unconventional, sometimes hostile, relationship with the news media and his penchant for communicating through unfiltered Twitter posts threaten to upend a decades-old Washington tradition that relies almost entirely on protocol. The result, reporters and editors say, could be a loss of transparency that would hinder the press's role as a conduit for information to the people.

But Mr. Trump's advisers, and even some former White House press secretaries, say that some of the conventions of White House coverage are outdated and due for a face-lift.

In a radio interview this month, Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, suggested that traditions including the daily televised press briefings and seating assignments could change.

"I think it's time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House, and I can assure you that change is going to happen, even on things that might seem boring like this topic," he told the radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Mr. Spicer, in an interview with Fox News on Thursday night, said the new regime wanted to be "innovative, entrepreneurial" about its media operations. While he said he believed there would be daily briefings, he suggested the format could change, perhaps by adding new elements, eliminating some television coverage and bringing "more people into the process."

All this has stirred concern among journalists who say seemingly small changes to the system could lead to the diminishing of other traditions.

"Beginning to suggest the daily briefings shouldn't happen every day in the format that they are, I think, begins to establish a slippery slope," said Scott Wilson, the national editor for The Washington Post, who was a White House correspondent during the Obama presidency. "There is value in having a formal setting where the administration's position is stated and can be referred to and can be archived."

Since his election, Mr. Trump has shown few reservations about ignoring the norms of presidential media coverage. He has defied convention by refusing to allow journalists to travel with him on his plane — including on his flight to the White House for his first meeting with President Obama.

In a highly publicized incident in mid-November, he left Trump Tower for dinner with his family without telling the reporters assigned to cover his whereabouts, sending the reporters scrambling for information. And while Mr. Trump has granted some interviews, including with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he also has not held a news conference since late July, preferring instead to use Twitter as his megaphone.

The protocols that underpin the relationship between the news media and the president might seem arcane to many Americans. But press advocates say these traditions, even in the age of Twitter, ensure fundamental tenets of democracy: historical record and access to information.

"The American people deserve to have someone stand up and be accountable for the work of the president and the White House every day," said Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. "I think any White House needs to explain its position and reasoning in more than 140 characters."

Many journalists also said that the new administration should retain the so-called protective pool — a group of journalists that travels with the president whenever he goes outside the White House, and through which he can communicate with the public during an emergency or crisis.

"We're not asking to be at his dinner table with him," said Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents' Association, which coordinates the pool. "We just want to be nearby in case something happens."

Veteran journalists point to the presence of a pool reporter with President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, as an example of providing a witness to history in a matter of urgent national interest. The pool's presence ensures timely reporting on the president's activities and essentially "protects" the ability to deliver coverage should something unexpected occur.

But there is acknowledgment on both sides of the lectern that some re-examination of the system is warranted, especially at a time when news organizations, which must pay their way to follow the president, are increasingly hamstrung by budget constraints.

"The question really should be, why do you need a protective pool when everybody has cellphones?" said Marlin Fitzwater, who was the press secretary under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. "When you have a president who can operate a tweet and reach 28 million people from the driveway of any building in America, you don't really need 14 people sitting there and watching him all night long." (Mr. Trump's Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, has about 18 million followers.)

Mr. Mason said that, since the election, the correspondents' association and Mr. Trump's team had "made a lot of progress in forming a protective pool" and that he was confident Mr. Trump would allow reporters to accompany him on Air Force One once he became president.

Mr. Trump's team has floated the possibility of other changes as well. In his radio interview, Mr. Priebus hinted that the Trump administration might assume control of the seating assignments in the briefing room. The correspondents' association has decided seating assignments since 1981, in large part because administrations of both parties did not want even the appearance of favoritism in determining press access.

Mr. Priebus's remarks prompted concern that the new administration would try to usurp some of the association's control.

Still, many said some kind of seating reform was appropriate.

Mr. McCurry and Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary under George W. Bush, said they had discussed a setup that would allow a revolving group of journalists into the briefing room rather than reserving seats only for the existing White House press corps. Foreign journalists could attend on Wednesdays, for example, while alternative online media outlets such as Breitbart News and Think Progress could rotate in on Thursdays.

Breitbart — the hard-right website whose former chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, was named Mr. Trump's chief strategist — is already part of Mr. Trump's transition pool. The organization's presence has raised some eyebrows, particularly in liberal media circles, because of its connection to Mr. Bannon. But members of the pools said they did not see it as an issue and pointed out that other partisan news outlets, like the left-leaning Huffington Post, were part of the pool.

Some former press secretaries suggested that Mr. Trump's administration should rethink the tradition of broadcasting press briefings on live television, which many say has led to posturing and performance.

Mr. McCurry, who introduced the tradition, said the live format had turned the daily briefings "into an alternative to the daytime soap operas."

"It was not a mistake to allow broadcast media to record the daily press briefing, but I should have put some restrictions and rules on it," he said.

One idea, he said, would be to embargo the briefings until their conclusion so they might be more informative for reporters and less like a theatrical show.

Mr. Fleischer also recommended taking the briefings off live television. But given Mr. Trump's propensity for showmanship, the live broadcasts may be the tradition least likely to change.

"There's a piece of me that thinks what Trump wants to do more than anything else," Mr. Fleischer said, "is make the briefing a red-hot TV show."


Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. 

H. L. Mencken

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