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Frank Sesno: President-elect Trump may abandon many traditions, but he should commit to regular press conferences

Twitter has its uses for communication but it's not a substitute for regular encounters with reporters, writes Frank Sesno

Editor’s Note: Frank Sesno is director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former CNN anchor, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief. He is author of the forthcoming book, “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change.” The views expressed are his own.

CNN —  

Since getting elected, Donald Trump has tweeted about America’s nuclear arsenal, the competency of American intelligence agencies and trade with China. But he has not taken sustained questioning about anything in a live, impromptu news conference. We’re left to speculate about what he really means, what it’s based on, and where he’s taking us.

After promising to hold a mid-December press conference about his business interests, the President-elect issued himself a rain check and said he would meet later with the press, perhaps in January.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump held very few press conferences. He held one during the Democratic National Convention, and then returned to his comfort zone of social media. His plans for the media once he’s in the White House remain disturbingly unclear.

Frank Sesno

So what? Who cares? It is tempting to say that in the modern age, press conferences are irrelevant. We are long past the days when three or four major networks and a handful of newspapers stood atop the media heap.

There are too many news outlets to claim that a President needs the big ones to get a message out. Technology empowers everyone to consume or disseminate information anywhere, anytime.

The President can post a YouTube video, tweet his latest policy or personnel decision, hold his own Google Town Hall, or offer policy explanations at President Obama did all of those things (though he also held press conferences and gave plenty of interviews to journalists). So why bother with “establishment media” and unscripted press conferences?

To be fair, one can understand presidents’ persistent frustration with reporters. Having been a White House reporter, I know how annoying we can be. Journalists pester and prod, provoke and pick fights. They can oversimplify, dwell on the controversial and seek out the negative. The lines between news and opinion have gotten so blurred that in many cases they’ve disappeared altogether.

Why should anyone submit to such an unruly mob? Why not just sit down with one thoughtful journalist at a time — especially when you can pick from a spectrum of strong, accomplished interviewers like Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Lesley Stahl or Terry Gross?

The reason is simple. While there is something quaint and quirky about presidential press conferences, they show the elected official on his (or her) feet, engaged in a spontaneous exchange with a roomful of knowledgeable and, yes, often adversarial people.

White House reporters love the horse race, but they know the issues and the debates driving them. They represent diverse voices, reflect a wide range of interests, and come from news organizations from across the country and around the world. Taken as a whole, they reach literally billions of people.

The White House press corps can be maddening in size and tone, sometimes a proving ground for egos and ambition with a crowd mentality that can reduce issues to sound bites or political food fights. But a good White House correspondent is like a good war reporter — experienced in combat, sensitive to the complexities of conflict, attuned to change and nuance and committed to holding those in power accountable for their words and actions.

We know that the public does not trust the media. That is a huge problem, and news organizations need to think hard about what it will take to regain public confidence. But most White House reporters take their work seriously and professionally. They follow the president each and every day in order to convey what he is doing, where he is going, what he says and how his policies are likely to play out. They talk to White House officials, members of Congress, staffers, experts and people of all political stripes in search of detail and context.

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    The White House briefing room was first built in 1902 when Teddy Roosevelt decided there needed to be a designated space for correspondents covering politics. Woodrow Wilson held the first full presidential press conference. JFK turned on the charm as television transformed the office. Nixon fidgeted and filibustered. Ronald Reagan walked down a red carpet. All of them battled the press but recognized the value of the exchange – and the need to explain and communicate through professional journalists to the American public and the world.

    So, Mr. Trump, let journalists gather and ask you those snarky questions. Get in the ring and endure the testing and the confrontation, the sparring that defines our democracy. Show the world that the president of the United States is accessible, accountable and willing to explain, defend, convince and cajole in an open forum with people whose job it is to report his every move.