CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer a simple question on Monday: Why were cameras not allowed to record today’s daily press briefing?
In the minute that followed, Spicer never answered the question. (Watch the full thing yourself right here.)
“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll continue to mix things up.”
Pressed by Acosta – and other reporters – Spicer again refused to answer. “Some days we will have them,” he said of cameras. “Some days we won’t.”
Here’s the thing: According to CBS News’ Mark Knoller, the White House has held 15 daily press briefings in June. Ten of those 15 – including Monday’s – were held off-camera.
This matters. Not only is it it a break with long-held tradition, it’s also an attempt by the Trump White House to kill off the daily briefing – or, at least, fundamentally weaken its relevance – through benign neglect.
The on-camera press briefing is something that has long marked the daily back and forth between the White House and the reporters who cover it. Past administrations have occasionally offered up an off-camera press gaggle here and there but nothing anywhere close to what this White House is currently doing.
To hear Spicer tell it, the reason for the change is that the off-camera briefing is more substantive than the on-camera one – marked by considerably less showboating by reporters eager to make a name for themselves by confronting the press secretary on camera.
“It’s great for us to come out here and have a substantive discussion about policies,” Spicer said last Friday during yet another off-camera briefing. “I don’t think that the be-all and end-all is whether it’s on television or not.”
The problem with that argument is that there appears to be no more substance in Spicer’s answers when the cameras are off versus when they are on. He – and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – tend to be extremely terse when answering questions and, when asked about President Trump’s view on a particular issue, often insist they simply haven’t asked the president. And they don’t follow up. Whether or not the cameras are running.
The real reason for the push toward off-camera gaggles is this: The White House knows that we are a visual culture. The less visuals they offer, the less impact something can have. An off-camera briefing makes the briefing non-existent for many people.
(If you doubt the power visuals have over us, consider the Ray Rice saga. It was known for months that Rice, a former Baltimore Ravens running back, had punched his fiancee in an elevator. It wasn’t until the videotape of the punch surfaced that it became a huge national – and international – story.)
The White House knows all of this. Remember that Donald Trump is – and always has been – a creature of the TV media. He loves cable news, consuming it nearly-constantly judging by his Twitter feed. He knows that without pictures – ideally moving pictures – stories lose oxygen. He – and his White House – are trying to starve stories of just that oxygen.
“We believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and the need for transparency at the highest levels of government,” Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association told members of the organization Friday.
He’s right. The question is how far those who cover the White House – and the organizations that back those reporters – are willing to push the envelope with a White House committed to ensuring the press briefing withers on the vine.
My question: Is any news organization willing to defy Spicer and just turn the cameras on?