The Associated Press has accused White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany of worrying the media by making her briefings political rather than informational — apparently forgetting that reporters choose the questions.
An article Saturday by the AP, the largest US news agency, said White House press briefings may be a “broken tradition,” as McEnany has made them “a streamlined, full-throated advertisement for a president facing re-election, a venue for attacks on the media and a forum relatively light on information” about what the government is doing.
The last of those assertions is indisputable, as hardly any new information is revealed at the briefings. What the AP failed to mention is that hardly any new information is actually sought at the briefings.
Reporters frequently use White House pressers to draw attention to themselves, an art form perfected by CNN’s Jim Acosta. They go beyond the typical adversarial media-administration relationship, repeating each other in asking gotcha questions aimed only at impugning President Donald Trump. In some cases, they make themselves the news, such as when CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang responded to an “ask China” retort from Trump by making a not-so-subtle hint at racism: “Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically?”
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A July 6 briefing offered a prime example of the disconnect over how the briefings have ceased to be a source of meaningful information for Americans.
Trump tweeted that morning that NASCAR’s television ratings had been hurt by a false allegation of a hate crime against driver Bubba Wallace and by its decision to ban display of the Confederate flag at its events. Predictably, most of the questions were about the tweet as reporter after reporter asked McEnany questions designed to prompt her to say that Trump supports the Confederate flag.
Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
McEnany didn’t provide the answer reporters wanted – a sound bite that would hurt Trump – but she repeatedly responded by saying the president wasn’t taking a position on the Confederate flag and that the gist of his message was that NASCAR fans were wrongly being portrayed as being racist. The AP said she sounded “exasperated” during the briefing.
The AP’s story echoed a Washington Post op-ed column earlier this month by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, who also is president of the White House Correspondents Association. Karl argued, “denying reality and using the White House podium for purely political purposes is a violation of public trust.”
Yet McEnany’s quick wit and combative style have made her a hero of some Trump supporters, since she gave her first briefing on May 1 after taking over as press secretary in April. The pressers had been absent for more than a year before her appointment.
Like other aspects of political life in Washington, the White House press secretary’s relationship with the media has changed dramatically in the Trump era. That change has come from both sides and predated McEnany’s arrival. A roast of former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders by comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April 2018 was so vicious that even MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski called it “deplorable.” AP White House reporter Jill Colvin greeted McEnany at her first briefing by asking, “Will you pledge never to lie to us from that podium?”
Fox News political analyst Brit Hume, a veteran of more than 50 years in journalism who had a 1989-1996 stint as ABC’s chief White House correspondent, said reporters today display “aggressive behavior” in the briefing room because of their contempt for Trump. It is because of their anti-Trump focus, he said this week on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight program, journalists are neglecting to gather policy news.
“It’s not just a gotcha game,” Hume said of the intended purpose of the pressers. “It’s not just an attempt to embarrass a public official. It’s to extract information.”
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