There’s an old joke, recounts Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer, in the movie “Annie Hall.”
Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”
The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.”
And that’s pretty much the story of the White House press briefings in the era of President Trump.
From Sean Spicer’s atrocious first day on the job in 2017 to Sarah Sanders’s more recent, dripping-with-disdain performances, the White House briefings are almost always devoid of meaningful information.
And, as in the 1977 film, they’re not only awful but the portions are measly: The so-called daily briefings are increasingly rare.
The most recent one was more than a month ago, which means that Sanders hasn’t briefed reporters once in 2019. That gap broke the Trump administration’s own record — a 29-day period between Oct. 29 and Nov. 27 last year without a briefing.
On Tuesday, Trump took the blame, or credit, depending on how you look at it.
“I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!” Trump tweeted, referring to Sanders. Besides, he said, reporters “cover her so rudely & inaccurately.”
His words, inadvertently, tell the story: The briefings shouldn’t be a way to make public-relations pronouncements (or get the word out) but an opportunity for reporters — representing citizens — to ask probing questions about the important issues of the moment.
And get answers.
Meaningful answers, that is, not misleading ones as Sanders offered during the Dec. 18 briefing when she claimed that the president was actively trying to keep the government open by seeking border-wall money elsewhere if it wasn’t going to be part of a funding bill.
The very next day, the White House did an about-face, announcing that Trump would reject any bill that didn’t include wall funding. Days later, 800,000 government employees were left in the lurch and have been working without pay, or have been furloughed, ever since.
So, a blithe farewell to the briefings?
That certainly isn’t the posture of the White House Correspondents’ Association, whose president, Olivier Knox, protested Tuesday after Trump’s tweet.
“This retreat from transparency and accountability sets a terrible precedent,” he said in a statement. The back-and-forth between reporters and White house, he wrote, demonstrates that “no one in a healthy republic is above being questioned.”
Flawed as these sessions are, Knox is right.
Part of their value is optics — they show reporters at least attempting to get at the truth by questioning those in power.
In the past, press briefings were simply part of the routine machinery of a functional White House — not big monthly “events” but just part of the day-to-day norm. But, in the Trump era, all of those gears are stripped: Nothing works predictably and without undue drama.
The Post’s Glenn Kessler observed, “Knowing reporters will ask pointed questions about policy forces White House staffers to resolve disagreements and settle on a course of action that can be communicated publicly.”
But that was then. We haven’t seen much of such sensible behavior in the past two years, with or without briefings. This White House functions as one big out-of-control id, with no restraining superego to keep it in line.
Besides, Trump loves to tell his own story without interpreters or intermediaries. Hence his infatuation with Twitter, where he can insult and misspell to his heart’s content.
And hence his own frequent appearances to talk with reporters directly. As my colleague Erik Wemple noted recently, Trump “has racked up 338 short question-and-answer sessions over his time in office.” That compares with 75 for President Barack Obama during his full first two years in office and 243 for President George W. Bush.
That sounds positive — and it would be if the president could be counted on to tell the truth in these informal sessions. But he doesn’t.
And, of course, they take place at his whim, not in the more organized and predictable setting of a scheduled briefing.
So if the Trump White House never holds another briefing, will anything be lost?
The temptation is to say no. To wish them a hearty good riddance.
But I’m with Olivier Knox on this: As citizens, we’re better off with the briefings, bad as they are.
They have value in showing reporters questioning power, in applying pressure, and in eliciting answers of some kind — even if those answers soon prove to be untrue.
But Trump has never acknowledged or respected the accountability function of the press. For him, the essence of media relations comes down to whether a story is good or bad for him.
I suspect that the briefings aren’t really a thing of the past. We’ll see them occasionally, when the White House finds it convenient or useful to get its story out in that form.
Not as an obligation to the public but as a public-relations tool.
But the quality — never any good — won’t improve. And the portions will be tiny.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan