Editor’s Note: Matt Lehrich is a communications consultant and former White House spokesman who helped prepare all three of President Obama’s press secretaries for the daily briefing. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Matt Lehrich: The White House press briefing is theater, but it's important
There's nothing like an hour of taking questions on live TV to lay bare when your answers just aren't good enough, Lehrich writes
The White House daily press briefing is often a predictable piece of kabuki theater.
Clinton-era press secretary Mike McCurry – widely considered one of the best to have manned the podium – famously stayed “deliberately uninformed” about the latest developments in the Monica Lewinsky scandal for the express purpose of being able to deflect questions without lying.
And the realities of international diplomacy have, over decades, led spokespeople for presidents of both parties to offer near-identical pabulum on some of America’s most vexing foreign policy questions.
Indeed, the briefing routinely sheds more heat than light, and rarely produces new insight into our government’s inner workings. And, yet, getting rid of it would be bad for the country.
The Trump administration has already canceled the daily State Department briefing, and on his recent trip abroad, Rex Tillerson held a news conference for foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia while shutting out the White House press corps.
With President Donald Trump taking to Twitter to hint at the daily press briefing’s impending demise, its many shortcomings are often in the spotlight. Thoughtful people who I respect deeply have rightly pointed out that reporters routinely play to the camera and briefers rarely stray from preapproved talking points (with apologies to Sean Spicer, who takes the brunt of things and rarely seems to have been given talking points at all).
The President may well be able to claim that “many people are saying” the daily ritual has outlived its purpose, and for once he could be right. But, for the very reasons the White House wants to limit Spicer’s exposure, ending the briefing would be wrong.
The briefing is a valuable tool for holding the government accountable, because there’s nothing like an hour of taking questions on live TV to lay bare when your answers just aren’t good enough. Squirming through the tedious cycle of answering and reanswering the same question, then watching the results on cable news, isn’t fun – I can tell you from experience. Nor is it especially enlightening in the moment. But it’s good motivation to find a better answer before you go do it again tomorrow.
And here’s the thing: Bad answers usually aren’t the product of bad talking points, but a symptom of substantive shortcomings.
I’m proud to have worked in an Obama White House that made it through eight years without the kind of ethics scandals that now seem to arise daily. But we certainly earned our share of tough questions, and those questions often forced us to look in the mirror and ask if we were using every tool at our disposal to fix the problem.
Examples abound, but I’ll illustrate my point with just one that feels especially relevant in the current context. When news broke in May 2013 that the Department of Justice had obtained reporters’ telephone records as part of a probe into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, we were caught flat-footed. In the immediate aftermath of the revelation, we relied on the traditional and accurate response that we would not be involved in, nor would we comment on, specific DOJ investigations (how quaint!).
But it quickly became clear that answer wasn’t going to cut it. As journalists in the briefing room rightly pressed, it was clear that the issue wasn’t about a specific case. It was about a fundamental principle. Within 10 days, President Obama had ordered a review of DOJ’s guidelines for investigations involving reporters, and by July, then-attorney general Eric Holder had issued new procedures to be more transparent and even-handed in situations where the Justice Department sought access to records or information regarding newsgathering activities.
Would the result have been the same without the daily briefing? I can’t say for sure. I know from private conversations that both President Obama and Mr. Holder were troubled by the questions the incident had raised. The Obama administration may well have ended up in the same place eventually on this particular issue, but I can certainly say that the daily briefing helped light a fire to get us there more quickly.
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As I said, that’s just one example. From the BP oil spill to healthcare.gov to veterans’ health, we were forced to answer challenging questions daily. It wasn’t always fun. Not every question was thoughtful, and not every briefing was productive. But there’s no question the exercise forced us to reexamine every day whether we were doing everything we could on behalf of the American people. And that’s an exercise worth preserving.