The Problem with the Horse’s Mouth: The Case for the White House Press Briefing

14 June 2019

This is a student post, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Democracy Initiative.


In 1913, Woodrow Wilson held the White House’s first press conference. In 1914, the White House Correspondents Association was formed to protect the journalists assigned to cover the White House. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover formally established the position of White House Press Secretary, naming George Akerson to the position. Ever since, the White House has grown gradually more open to the press, with briefings becoming more frequent, presidents themselves more accessible, and the inner-workings of the federal government more transparent to the American public. The White House press briefing has become a staple of the executive branch’s interaction with journalists: it offers the White House a platform to provide information, and offers the media the chance to ask the administration questions directly. These briefings give Americans a public performance of governmental transparency.


But since the Trump administration installed Sarah Huckabee Sanders as press secretary, the press briefing has virtually disappeared. During her tenure, Sanders has held fewer briefings per month than the previous 13 press secretaries. In November and December of 2018 and January of 2019, she held only one briefing per month. Sanders then went six weeks—a record—before holding her next briefing on March 11. There has not been an official briefing since. Yes, Sanders technically hosted a briefing for “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” But this was largely off-the-record, and the questions had more to do with the president’s ice cream preferences than substantive policy issues. This is now the longest stretch of time the White House has gone without a press briefing, and there are no indications that this status will change anytime soon.


The decline in the frequency of press briefings isn’t simply a matter of poor scheduling or coincidence. In January, Trump tweeted that he told Sanders “not to bother” with press briefings because “the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately.” It is worth noting that while Sanders has had combative interactions in her tenure as press secretary, she has not had the most contentious exchanges with the press; that prize belongs to Josh Earnest, President Obama’s press secretary from 2014 to 2017.


The disappearance of the White House press briefing probably doesn’t top Americans’ list of major concerns, even among those who have noticed. But its absence should be a reason for alarm. The White House press briefing has made American government more transparent and increased executive accountability. Its diminishing use in the Trump White House is another example of democratic backslide, or the erosion of democratic norms and institutions at the hands of populist-authoritarian leaders.


The administration, however, argues that press briefings simply aren’t necessary in this presidency: With Trump extolling his thoughts on Twitter and regularly taking impromptu questions from journalists on the White House lawn, Trump himself is fairly accessible to the press and to the public. Why bother with the middlemen—in this case, press briefings—when you can get the news straight from the horse’s mouth?


Well, for one, the horse is not omniscient. Trump, like any president, cannot possibly know the ins and outs of every policy. Press briefings allow the press to ask the press secretary and other officials in the executive branch detailed policy questions — questions to which the president himself may or may not know the answer. In his current setup, President Trump does not have the ability to give the press the information it needs, which means the public doesn’t get the information it needs, period. Press briefings also allow the public to see exactly what the press secretary, or the president, or any other executive official actually knows. The routinized Q&A format of the press briefings means journalists can ask follow-up questions and push for answers to their questions. This opportunity simply does not exist when a gaggle of reporters shouts at the president or the press secretary on the front lawn of the White House, or when cameras chase after Trump as he climbs into Air Force One.


Second, the horse is not the only horse worth hearing from. That is to say, the president does not act unilaterally, and his agenda is not the only one worth examining. While the president’s public Tweets or informal meetings with the press may give Americans greater insight into his mind or actions at that given moment, such interactions do not speak to the actions of the executive branch as a whole. Rather, the President uses Twitter and his interactions with the press to promote his own agenda. He controls the narrative. No public official should be above questioning, but, without press briefings, there are few opportunities to pose the right questions to Trump or the members of his administration.


Third, the public doesn’t always know what should be coming out of the horse’s mouth. It is the press’s job to know what government initiatives are forthcoming, which bills will soon be on the president’s desk, what world events might have an impact on diplomatic relations — and then to ask questions accordingly. The vast majority of Americans—even those active on Twitter— do not have the time, ability, or willpower to think about every bill coming across the Senate floor. Nor can they know about every individual Trump nominates to be an ambassador, or how budget alterations fit the administration’s priorities. It is the role of the press to find these stories, to get the information from the White House, and to tell the public what matters and why it matters. When the press inevitably turns to other methods to gather information, such as relying on government leaks, they are attacked by the president. Limiting journalists’ access and discrediting the press’s methods, while cherry-picking questions on Twitter, allows Trump to control the narrative.


Without press briefings, the public and the press have fewer means to redirect the executive’s narrative.


At first glance, the decrease in White House press briefings might seem innocuous, or simply a technological shift, allowing us to have more direct contact with the President. In reality, this move undermines the legitimacy of the press and diverts attention away from the democratic people and toward the priorities of the President. Frankly, the American public wants, needs, and deserves more than just the information that comes straight from the horse’s mouth.


Photo Credit: Josh Bergland, Empty Podium, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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