In a month and a week, Donald Trump will become the most powerful man in the world, leading a nation founded on the ideals of freedom, self-reliance and governance at the will of the governed.
That last point is important. Trump governs by the will of the people, requiring that the people have a sense of what and how Trump is doing -- a concept to which Trump has been surprisingly hostile. He's repeatedly promised to provide information that hasn't arrived and increasingly relied on his Twitter account and longer press releases as his primary means of conveying information.
As I write, it's been 139 days since Trump held a press conference, for example. Trump was supposed to hold one on Thursday to discuss how he plans to minimize conflicts of interest with his businesses, but that was postponed on Monday night. As of now, his next press conference will instead be in January.
Many people don't really get why this is important. Take pollster Frank Luntz, who raised the question on Twitter.
To my followers who are journalists: Why is it important to have press conferences? (as opposed to constant tweeting)
I’ll RT your replies…
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) December 12, 2016
The way he frames the contrast is interesting: Why have a press conference "as opposed to constant tweeting"? Earlier this month Trump said (well, tweeted) that he tweets all the time because the press doesn't "cover me accurately and honorably." Ergo, he takes his case directly to the people.
Let's use an analogy. Let's say you're trying to figure out which of your two kids ate the cookie you were saving for dessert. (This is the sort of mystery for which I was often a suspect -- and culprit -- when I was a kid.) To figure out who gets grounded, you'd want to press the kids on the subject, analyzing their answers and figuring out how those replies comported with the evidence. You might want your spouse there, too, or another adult, to think of other questions worth asking and to follow up on things you might have overlooked. You may have different relationships with the kid, letting one of you play bad cop and the other good. In this context, it's clear that the best way to get the most information is to empower the question-asker, not the person who's giving the answers.
Imagine if, on the other hand, you were reliant on brief sentences your kids offered every hour or two. Or, perhaps, if your kid sat down for a brief session to answer questions with your aunt -- or that friend of his, Sean. Would you estimate that your odds of figuring out what happened are better or worse under such a scenario?
It doesn't need to be something negative, mind you. Say your kid says that he made the honor roll. Good work, kid! But, you know, let's see some paperwork. Particularly if your kid is prone, in his brief two-sentence explanations, to some exaggeration.
To put a fine point on it: Evaluating claims is easier when you have more people examining the claims, not fewer. It's more robust when you can challenge assertions that have been made with the person that's making them. Taking your case to the people is exactly the problem: Your case, by definition, leaves out the full picture of what's going on, including countering opinions.
There's no question that press conference questions are not all gems. There's similarly no question that coverage of something that Donald Trump says won't necessarily mirror his preferred language. To use the language of software development: The former is a bug. The latter is a feature.
Trump's been very effective at deliberately establishing the media as a foil. He uses the now-common universal descriptor "the media" to encompass a lot of different things: Opinion writers and reporters, big publications and small ones. His loyalties are fleeting and mostly dependent on the coverage at that moment. He's been consistently hostile about the New York Times, even though its coverage of the things he's complained about has just as consistently held up.
Our previous analogy works here, once again. If your kid comes home from school day after day and says the teacher doesn't like him or is out to get him, you can probably guess what his report card is going to show. If he says that all teachers everywhere are against him, year after year, something else might be at play.
It's critical at this point to remember that Trump isn't a normal person. He's the president-elect of the United States, not some guy from TV or a run-of-the-mill celeb. The bar for transparency is much higher at the moment than it was even two months ago, and certainly than it was before Trump threw his hat in the ring. In theory, he should embrace his tense relationship with the press as a tool for informing the public; in practice, no politician does. (Including President Obama, who's been criticized for his lack of openness and accessibility.) But Trump has given any number of indicators that his hostility to the process goes far further, skipping customary transparency measures (like releasing his tax returns) and, again, bashing the media as illegitimate and biased.
The worst-case scenario for Trump-media relations is outlined here by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. He notes that Trump's frequent inaccuracies and lies in his tweets and press statements can further the rift between himself and the press -- or, more importantly, the press and the public -- by serving "as both a show of power and to cast the press in the role of petty but hateful antagonist." That's where the press is now in the eyes of Trump's more fervent supporters, and that plays to Trump's benefit by ensuring that he is given the benefit of the doubt, instead of us.
That lack of trust in the press broadly -- it's at a low in Gallup polling -- is a big part of the problem at the core of why Trump behaves the way he does and puts off press conferences. (Most presidents-elect have held pressers shortly after winning. Trump, again, has gone over four months.) Trump leverages skepticism about the work that we do to his political benefit.
There's always a tension between what politicians would like to have reported and what information the press thinks is important to share. It's trench warfare, with established lines that haven't moved much over time, but which nonetheless inspire furious fighting. But if the media's locked in World War I against Obama, Trump has perfected the Blitz.
Getting us to the core point that's worth noting: Press conferences are a chance for the media to work together to wring information out of a recalcitrant politician, to give as full a picture to the public as possible. Donald Trump knows, though, that he doesn't have to do them if he doesn't want to and, what's more, that the media is flummoxed when he is dishonest on those occasions that he answers our questions.
Any other president could have done this, too. But no other president came into office with a press that was so deeply distrusted -- and no other president was so willing to flout the idea that the public deserved, at some level, an accurate picture of what's going on.
Press conferences are one way in which Trump's tendencies can be countered. No wonder he's not particularly eager to have one.