Much news was made recently with the current President banned several news outlets from a variety of press conferences. Indeed, the current President’s relationship with traditional media has been uneasy and tense. Many, upon hearing of the ban, proclaimed the beginning of the end of democracy as we know it. Truthfully, there’s a bit more to it, and perhaps less reason to panic.
The US’ “Freedom of the Press” derives from the First Amendment to the Constitution, and is often held up as one of the pillars of a free society. An objective, unrestricted press has the ability to inform the populace, question politicians, and expose corruption. The press has been instrumental in revealing numerous government problems over the past 200+ years. Nobody seriously thinks that role is in danger; Trump’s rhetoric aside, literally our entire system of government would have to change in order for the press to be generally restricted in a way that they presently are not.
However, “objectivity” has never been a shining star for the media. Newspaper barons have always slanted the view of their publications, and that tradition continues into modern media. Fox News leans heavily conservative, for example, while MSNBC tilts liberal. Nearly every mainstream media outlet proclaims themselves to be unbiased and objective, but none of them offer a dispassionate, observer-based look at the news of the day. They all offer opinion along with the news, and it’s important to recognize that gap between their taglines (“Fair and Balanced!”) and their reality. There are smaller outlets which do a better job of walking the middle line when it comes to reporting news, but they’re few and far between. Much of today’s news is in the form of commentary from a brand-name individual, and that inevitably includes their own slant on the news.
So let’s move on to the actual White House Press Corps, which was at the heart of the recent ban-news, and which has been the direct recipient of the current administration’s rhetoric.
The Press Corps allegedly began in the 1900s, when Teddy Roosevelt “noticed a group of correspondents in the rain looking for sources for their stories and invited them into the White House.” That story may be apocryphal, but it’s likely that the Press Corps started informally. Today, it consists of around 50 representatives from various news outlets.
It’s important to note that, in the mid-1900s, there was deep concern over the objectivity of the Press Corps. It was felt, in many ways, that they were simply a way for the President to control what information was released, and that they couldn’t be trusted to get the whole, objective picture. While being able to directly question the President is doubtless a good thing, the Press Corps was a supplement to the usual investigative journalism of the day.
Today, the role of the Press Corps is something slightly different. Years ago, the White House installed a “reverse” camera that pointed from the front podium back into the audience. The idea was to capture footage of correspondents asking questions. In fact, today, the President or Press Secretary will often be asked the same question over and over again by the front-seaters who represent the major TV outlets. This is done so that each can be captured asking the question for their video packages. Objectively, this is pure theater, and isn’t news at all.
One former correspondent, in an NPR interview, pointed out that the Press Corps has never broken a major news story, and confirms the somewhat-theatrical nature of the proceedings today. The idea of being able to confront the President on his home turf and demand questions to tough answers is wonderful, but in reality the President isn’t going to answer anything he doesn’t want to. The main value, then, is to be seen asking the tough questions, to improve one’s reputation.
That same former correspondent suggests that being banned from the Press Corps might actually be a good thing for modern media. Shut out of the administration’s predigested news feed, they’d be forced to go looking for news. Cozying up to disgruntled career bureaucrats, digging for sources, and so on. Finding out more than just what the White House wants to say, in other words. If the President doesn’t want the opportunity to directly address questions and accusations, fine – this isn’t the 1900s when newspapers are our only form of communication. Stories can be vetted and launched within minutes, and if the administration cares to comment, it obviously has its own outlets, like Twitter.
There’s no question that freedom of the press is important, particularly to Americans who take the time to listen to several different news sources, and to arrive at their own conclusions. But the White House Press Corp specifically isn’t some guardian of American Democracy. Yes, it can serve a useful purpose and provide a useful set of opportunities, but it’s hardly necessary in today’s world. Yes, a Press Corp that consists only of the administration’s favored outlets is less useful to the general public – but that may not be a huge deal in terms of our overall society.
People tend to only watch the news sources that confirm their worldview. The existence of other perspectives is not only uninteresting, to many it’s somehow threatening. If you’re a fan of the current administration, then, you’re statistically likely to be watching his favorite news outlets anyway. The inclusion or exclusion of other outlets in the Press Corps isn’t going to change you. On the other hand, if you’re not a fan of the current President, then the exclusion of your favorite news outlet from the Press Corp may seem like a slight, but in fact it might be a blessing. Freed of the administration’s official dog-and-pony-show, those outlets have an opportunity to step up their game and go digging for the real stories. And it’s not like you’re going to be deprived of the administration’s official news spin – again, there are numerous outlets that will be happy to provide it to you on a 24×7 basis.
In our modern, always-connected age, it’s perhaps fitting that the current administration finds ways to communicate its story directly to the electorate. We get the President unvarnished by press spin, punditry, and abstractions. This administration – as all others – is what it is; the difference here, perhaps, is that we get it direct. Given that we don’t need the filter of the press between us and the administration, perhaps the Press Corps itself is less crucial than in the 1900s. Let the administration speak its peace, and let journalism forge a new and stronger Fourth Estate.
And to be clear, there is value in some of what the Press Corp does. Being able to confront a representative of the administration, if not the President himself, is useful in a democracy. The press points to incidents like the “weapons of mass destruction” and Watergate as incidents when the daily press briefings were used to “hold the administration accountable.” If the President loads the room only with supporters, those confrontations are less likely to occur. However, you as a voter simply need to take that into consideration when you vote. Has the President attempted to be balanced and transparent, or not? Has he behaved in a way that you approve of, or not? How the President uses the Press Corps may be more important that the Press Corps itself.
Anyway… that’s kind of my perspective on the whole thing. I rely tremendously on the press, in all its varied biases; I’d like to rely less on the few who occupy the daily briefing room. I’m assuming it’s an increasingly stacked deck.