It’s a common scenario: Trump appears before a group of reporters, says inflammatory and false things, then leaves the media to make sense of it all. Tallies compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and professor emerita at Towson University — show that Trump eclipses his modern predecessors in holding these short Q-and-A sessions with the media. The numbers below track media interactions for presidents at the same stage of their first terms:
Kumar’s data houses multitudes of stories for media critics: President Barack loved his interviews but made himself scarce when it came to the extemporaneous Q-and-A sessions that his successor so enjoys; President Bill Clinton was an eclectic mediaphile; and Trump has done few solo formal news conferences.
Among the reasons Trump does so many Q-and-A sessions is that he has mastered them. They are often hectic affairs, with many reporters shouting questions and the noise of a helicopter in the background — a scenario that gives the president a great deal of leverage. Amid the gaggle, he listens as reporters compete against one another to blast out questions. He answers the ones he likes and blows off the ones he doesn’t like. Follow-up questions can easily be ignored. “From a practical standpoint, the question-and-answer sessions represent something of a free-for-all where President Trump is the ringmaster. While other presidents have held these sessions, they have done so more as a way of responding to reporters between the more formal press conferences than as a substitute for them,” writes Kumar in a discussion of her findings.
Some key caveats about Trump’s frequent availability to the media: 1) Question-and-answer sessions do not substitute for formal news conferences, which place greater pressure on the president to fashion comprehensive defenses of policy initiatives, personnel decisions, etc. 2) The sessions do not substitute for White House press briefings held by the press secretary, a forum at which reporters can explore big-picture issues as well as logistical and scheduling matters. As an added bonus, they depict top White House officials attempting to defend the whimsical pronouncements and tweets of their boss. The last general briefing occurred on March 11. 3) Media availability in no way mitigates the various and persistent attacks that Trump has unleashed on the media over the past four years, nor does it excuse his authoritarian attempt to deny credentials to CNN’s Jim Acosta or similar ongoing effort against Playboy’s Brian Karem.
And there’s a final caveat: Accessibility doesn’t equal transparency, a trait that requires honesty.