On Monday afternoon, CNN host Brooke Baldwin told her viewers: “We have one ear to this White House briefing. We’re waiting for the Q-and-A portion with Sarah Sanders.” The existence of a White House briefing, of course, was news unto itself. Sanders, the White House’s press secretary, hadn’t held a formal briefing since Dec. 18, leaving correspondents scrambling to figure out when she’d appear on Fox News so that they could ambush her somewhere on the White House grounds.
On Monday, however, Sanders convened a room of media types and said, “Missed you guys” as she passed the baton to three officials — national security adviser John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow — to address U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
The three finished their work just after 4 p.m., allowing Sanders to step up and take questions on the prospect of another shutdown, the employment of undocumented immigrants at President Trump’s golf club and other issues. As she jousted with the assembled media, however, CNN did something it doesn’t routinely do: It stayed away. CNN host Jake Tapper opened his show with an extensive discussion of the 2020 presidential candidacy of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), with whom Tapper held a CNN town hall in Des Moines on Monday night. Moments later, the network aired a prepared package by White House reporter Kaitlan Collins on the first White House briefing of 2019 — complete with footage of Sanders, moments earlier, telling reporters that Trump doesn’t want to do another government shutdown.
But it didn’t go live from the White House briefing room.
The practice of cable-news networks to broadcast these sessions live has become a recent obsession of the Erik Wemple Blog. Last year, we wrote about how MSNBC led the pack in blowing off full live coverage of these sessions and grabbing only the newsworthy moments for subsequent clipping and commentary. “Handle with care” was the message — and an appropriate message in light of the frequent distortions and falsehoods that come tumbling from the lectern.
CNN’s move on Monday appeared to the Erik Wemple Blog to be a programmatic démarche. As a close watcher of these things, we’ve seen the network routinely uproot its regular coverage to take the feed from Sanders in the briefing room. Better said, the briefings have been part of CNN’s regular coverage — as they had been for all three cable-news networks for much of the Trump presidency. Looking back over Sanders’s “recent” briefings, it’s pretty clear that CNN defaulted to live and comprehensive coverage of these sessions: Dec. 18, Nov. 27, Oct. 29, Oct. 3, Sept. 10, Aug. 22, July 23, July 18, July 2, June 25, for example.
We asked the network about whether Monday’s decisions marked a turning point in handling Sanders’s appearances. A CNN source responded that there have been times when the network hasn’t taken the live feed and that it’s “common for us to dip in and out.”
The decision by both MSNBC and CNN on Monday to defend their airwaves from the often bogus pronouncements of prominent Trump officials could mean any number of things, including: 1) Nothing — CNN might have had peculiar reasons for its call, such as promoting its town hall with Harris, and it may return to default briefing coverage if Sanders ever presents herself again at the lectern; 2) Something — CNN may be discovering that its audience appreciates editorial discretion when it comes to White House lies, even though the network has done a good job of post-briefing fact-checking; 3) Everything — Monday could be a turning point for the media’s appreciation of its own role in covering the Trump White House. Maybe even Fox News will develop some self-regard on this front and air its own newsies instead of Sanders.
In observing this development on Monday, the Erik Wemple Blog received a bit of pushback:
Brian Stelter et al: We NEED briefings. Or democracy dies.— Tim Graham (@TimJGraham) January 28, 2019
CNN today: We're NOT airing that garbage live.
There is, in fact, no contradiction in a news network pushing for White House briefings and then declining to carry them live. Even as CNN and MSNBC were airing other material Monday, their correspondents were in the briefing room seeking answers to their questions. Later on, if real answers actually materialize, they can air the footage, an approach that matches the prescription of two former White House press secretaries. It’s a fair approximation of journalism.