Editor’s note: In the wake of President Trump’s tweet calling the media “the enemy of the American people” and White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s exclusion of major media outlets from a briefing, some have called for the media to consider some kind of boycott of the White House. On Wednesday afternoon, Post Opinions digital editor James Downie moderated an email discussion on this topic between Post Opinions media blogger Erik Wemple and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. The exchange is reprinted below and has been edited for style and clarity.
Jay Rosen: It’s easier for power to act upon the press than it is for the press to get its act together and respond to the designs of power. There are many reasons for this. The press corps is a “herd of independent minds.” Its members think of themselves as highly competitive with one another. The institutions and leaders that might be expected to coordinate any push back — like the White House Correspondents' Association — are weak and not designed to prevail in a power struggle. So I am pessimistic that we will see any collective response, even when the case for it is strong.
For me the strongest case is refusing to cooperate when White House “officials” want to brief the press as a group (which means influence the story) without allowing their names to be used. I see no good reason for allowing this. Do you? When reporters go along with it they are advertising how meek and pliable they are. Here I would introduce a distinction that Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall employed a few days ago. “The rules of anonymous sourcing,” he wrote, “need to take into account when the sources are not those who need protection from those with power but rather those with power who want protection from their claims being scrutinized.” Bingo.
Journalists on the White House beat should not be collaborating with people in power who want protection from their claims being scrutinized. Let’s start with boycotting those situations and see what happens.
Erik Wemple: That’s a strong suggestion whose merits have been obvious for decades, yet nothing of the sort has happened. There’s a reason, too: Hundreds upon hundreds of news outlets — okay, thousands — are interested in following the happenings at the White House. Yet the number of news sources at the White House — people who know what’s happening — is finite. Dozens maybe. With that imbalance hanging over the enterprise, it’s hard for a group of reporters competing against one another to secure the upper hand.
Rosen:Right. So what you’re saying is: It’s clear what they should do, but they’re too weak (in relative terms) to do it, so they persist with a practice that is indefensible.
To which I would add: The Trump White House has made that situation worse. By adding more highly ideological and Trump-aligned news organizations to the mix, Spicer and company have guaranteed that any “walk out” by the mainstream press would mean leaving the field — the room — to these players, which the mainstream press is loathe to do.
James Downie: During the campaign, and even since then, we have often heard from people telling us to scale back coverage of Trump. Do you think the refusal to boycott hurts the public’s view of the media?
Rosen: I am in sympathy with those who say: “don’t overreact to every provocation” and “don’t let Trump’s Twitter feed set your agenda.” I think it’s important to keep your cool and be guided by your own sense of what matters. If the president is being a cartoon hothead and conducting culture war while the press is calmly examining his claims and revealing his agenda, that is a win for journalists. At the same time, I don’t agree with those who say: Pay attention to what he does, not what he says! For the American president, there are many ways in which words are deeds. What he says matters. You cannot not cover that.
But I find it hard to believe that the public at large cares about what goes on the briefing room, or in the tensions between the press and the White House. It matters to official Washington. It tells you something about the administration. It reveals the nature of the press corps. But that is all.
Wemple: I agree with that analysis. I think the real debate right now is what to do about the falsehoods and the lies. I’ve written that there really is no foolproof or even optimal way of dealing with White House emissaries who tell whoppers on live television. On the one hand, there’s value in hearing what our government has to say about its actions and vision for the future. On the other, news organizations are responsible for the factual hygiene of their product. In some cases, those two imperatives just aren’t compatible.
Rosen: When Erik talks about “the public’s estimation of the media,” I think it’s important to add that the fiction of a unitary public is under more and more strain. We can always force its appearance by referencing poll numbers for the whole public, including confidence levels in the press, but increasingly that is pure artifice. It’s the breakdown along party lines, or Trump supporters vs. his critics that tells us what is really going on. There may be no such thing as “the public’s estimation of the media.”
Downie: Besides the question of a boycott, are there alternative approaches to dealing with the Trump White House that either of you would like to see media organizations try?
Wemple: That is a good question. While there are several challenges, I do believe that over the transition and into the Trump presidency, the media as a whole has done pretty good work, as opposed to a spottier record during the campaign. There has been a lot of shoe-leather reporting going on, and the great story thus far of the Trump White House is the willingness of people who work there to leak to the media. Perhaps that’ll diminish as the inner circle does more and more phone checks and the like — but it’s not as if the past five weeks have been a shameful run.
Rosen: I am on record with “send the interns” and shift to an “outside-in” approach rather than inside-out. I would like to see those tried. But more fundamental than either of those ideas is the simple recognition that this time it’s different. Covering Trump and his White House is not like covering previous administrations. While that may seem obvious, it has huge consequences. It means that normal routines may be completely inappropriate to the new situation. And it means that the White House press corps has to come up with new ideas in order to do its job. That’s not what the members signed up for.
Downie: Final thoughts?
Wemple: Earlier Wednesday, CNN’s Sara Murray reported that on Tuesday the White House devised a “misdirection” ploy: In a pre-congressional-address meeting with prominent news anchors, they discussed immigration reform and a path to legal status — though just as a way of keeping a positive news story in the media until the time of his address. Of course, the president didn’t mention any such proposal in his address. Murray cited a “senior administration official” for the contention that the whole thing was an act of misdirection. I have no doubt that a legitimately senior administration official told this to Murray. I have more doubt whether it is to be believed. Given that this White House says so many things on the record that turn out not to be true, you have to proceed with the assumption that the account of a “senior administration official” is fully worthless, and the implications of this reality are infinite.
Rosen: To Erik’s story of Sara Murray let me add the strange tale of Politico’s Tara Palmeri, who asked a White House aide why she was being prevented from joining Sean Spicer’s off-camera briefing on Feb. 24. Tara said she would have to write a story about this, because it was so unusual. The aide replied, “You’re threatening me.” This is a weird event. The White House appears to be maximizing tensions and escalating things without any clear purpose in mind. There may be a plan, or it may be a symptom of internal chaos. It’s hard to know. What is clear is that this is not a normal White House. There is no reason to think that the previous routines apply.