Gloves Off: Time to cut the daily White House briefing?

Has the daily White House press briefing outlived its usefulness in the age of Trump, fake news, and alternative facts?

KayAnn Schoeneman
SVP and director of Ketchum’s Washington, DC, public and corporate affairs practice

President Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, organized the first televised White House press briefing in the mid-1950s.

A lot has changed in the last 60 years, not least the rise of 24-hour cable TV news, social media, and news websites as methods for the White House to get its message out to Americans. Despite that, the daily press briefing is still plodding along. Media has evolved over the decades; the press briefing needs to evolve, too.

While transparency and freedom of the press remain paramount, the White House press briefing has morphed into political theater and showmanship and has drifted from the mission of the White House Correspondents Association of providing "accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned."

Today, journalists have greater access to senior officials who are willing to speak both on and off the record more than they ever have.

Access to the president is as close as a tweet. The days when a daily briefing represented the only opportunity for the press to challenge the administration are over. Yet these briefings still go on, and the same questions are asked over and over. They have become fodder for late-night TV, watched by people for the crashes, not the news.

How should these briefings evolve? President Donald Trump suggested "handing out written responses for the sake of accuracy." While not unprecedented — written questions and answers were a standard practice used by past administrations — it seems even more antiquated than the current format.

While we’re seeing real-time innovation in most other aspects of political communication — especially in election campaigns — the daily White House press briefing is an old-school approach. At the very least, a better use of social platforms to enable broader media participation seems like a logical opportunity.

If the daily briefing is meant to drive accountability and transparency, we should admit the current format fails to deliver and challenge ourselves to reinvent.

Lance Morgan
Chief communications strategist at Powell Tate

No matter whose interest you have in mind — the media, the public, or even the president — doing away with the daily White House press briefing is a terrible idea.

Let’s stipulate that the daily jousting is an infuriating mix of truth-telling, prevarication, and reality denial regardless of the participants’ and viewers’ political perspectives. But getting rid of the spectacle would be both a practical failure and a symbolic disaster.

Ironically, the president who publicly muses about halting the briefings would be the first to suffer. Who among us would advise any client to decline a daily hour of free airtime to express any views on any subjects to a national audience?

Whether the audience likes the administration or not, thinks the spokesperson is doing well or badly, it makes no sense to abandon the bully pulpit and lose this unique opportunity to communicate to the American people.

Another irony is that while the decision would rightly be seen as a slap at the media, shutting off the physical access to White House officials wouldn’t dramatically impede reporters’ ability to do their jobs. By and large, correspondents use the daily briefing to get the White House’s official position on the stories of the day.

The real work, done by the best Washington reporters, is finding the stories. And that work is done outside the briefing room. No serious person thinks dousing the floodlights would douse the reporting and leaking.

As a practical matter, ending the daily briefing won’t accomplish any of the president’s putative goals, but the real damage would come from the symbolism of taking a giant step away from the president’s accountability.

Imperfect and maddening though it is, the daily White House press briefing is the only way to give the public a sense of what is going on in the Oval Office. Shutting it down would be tantamount to telling the American people they have no business knowing what the president is thinking and doing.

PRWeek's View: In a world that places increasing value on transparency, stopping the briefings would be a transparently ugly and counterproductive act for all concerned.

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