The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The White House daily briefings are disappearing — as are democratic norms

Reporters raise hands to be called on by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the daily news briefing at the White House on April 11.
Reporters raise hands to be called on by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the daily news briefing at the White House on April 11. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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WHAT USED to be known as the White House daily briefing is no more. The White House held just one on-camera press briefing in September. There were five in June, three in July and five in August. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the media, so perhaps the diminution of this tradition should come as no surprise. That, though, doesn’t make it any less troubling. Americans are ill-served when their government refuses to answer questions and provide information about its workings.

Press briefings were an almost daily occurrence in previous administrations, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has discounted their importance. “The day that the briefing was initially created, the atmosphere was incredibly different and you didn’t have the same access and ways to communicate with the American public,” she said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “I always think if you can hear directly from the president, and the press has a chance to ask the president of the United States questions directly, that’s infinitely better than talking to me.”

No question that Mr. Trump has taken full advantage of Twitter to make his views known. He sometimes participates in impromptu news conferences or takes questions from reporters during photo opportunities. Recently he has held two long news conferences, which are certainly valuable opportunities for Americans to hear from him directly.

But as important as it is to hear from the president, spur-of-the-moment decisions to give answers to shouted questions are not sufficient. They do not substitute for regular press briefings in which reporters from a range of news organizations are able to ask about a wide range of issues (not just the news of the day). They are an important window into the policies and priorities of the government.

To be sure, there has been criticism (including from us) of the Trump White House briefings. Too often there are no real answers, and worse, the lectern has been used to disseminate misleading, even false, information. But even then, there is value. On-the-record statements from administration officials can be tested and debated, in a normal and essential part of the democratic process. The briefing, as White House Correspondents’ Association President Olivier Knox told CNN, “has both a symbolic and a substantive importance. . . . It symbolically shows that the most powerful political institution in American life is not above being questioned. That makes it worth saving.”

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