Sarah Sanders encouraged reporters to say what they're thankful for before she'd answer questions on Monday
John Kirby: Her aw-shucks stunt was part of administration's effort to undermine credibility, stature of a free press
Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
At Monday’s daily press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders encouraged reporters to first state things they were thankful for before asking their questions. Most of them obliged. They shouldn’t have.
Reporters ask questions at press briefings. Spokespeople answer them.
It’s neither the time nor the place for kibbitzing or moralizing, and it’s certainly not appropriate for a press secretary to lay down special rules for who gets to ask questions or how those questions need to be prefaced or proffered.
To be clear, Sanders did not insist reporters cooperate with her new “tell-me-what-you’re-thankful-for-first” rule. But she certainly set the expectation.
“This is how it’s going to work today,” she said. “If you want to ask a question I think it’s only fair since I’ve shared what I’m thankful for … you start off with what you’re thankful for.”
Now, before I get inundated with Twitter screeds and hate mail about how I need to go back to yelling at kids to get off my lawn, let me make clear that there’s nothing wrong with people – yes, reporters are people – pausing during the holiday season to reflect on their blessings. I get it.
Even I have to admit it was nice to see hard-bitten reporters express thanks to their families, to the troops and to our democratic ideals. And one had to feel just a little warmer inside when American Urban Radio Networks correspondent and CNN contributor April Ryan told Sanders she was thankful “to be able to talk to you and question you every single day.”
In an unmistakable jab at the administration, Cecilia Vega of ABC News said she was thankful for the First Amendment.
Were that we all. And I guess that’s the point.
Sanders goaded reporters into participating in what she couched as an aw-shucks, good-natured, can’t-we-all-just-get-along holiday kumbaya, but the real effect of the exercise was to underscore the disdain this White House harbors for the press. And the press shouldn’t have taken that bait.
The whole cringe-worthy exercise made me embarrassed for the reporters and angry at Sanders and this White House for their arrogance and condescension.
If this had been the first time, perhaps I could let it slide and go back to screaming at clouds. But last month, White House chief of staff John Kelly seemed to suggest in a press conference he would only take questions from reporters who personally knew “a Gold Star fallen person.”
And on any given day, Sanders continues to badger reporters about what they may ask and how many times they may ask it, all the while racing off to call on the next reporter before she even finishes the answer she is giving. Heaven forbid she should have to deal with follow-ups.
Look, I wasn’t the best podium jockey in the world when I was spokesman for the Department of State and the Pentagon. Far from it. There were times I didn’t want to deal with follow-ups, either. There were times I wasn’t as complete in my responses as I should have been, times when I got pugilistic with a reporter or two – sometimes justified, most times not.
And without question, there were times when I tried to place limits and controls on how we were going to address certain issues, especially when I had a guest briefer up there with me.
But I can’t remember a single time when I told a reporter he or she needed to qualify him- or herself before asking me something. And if I had, I may well have been fired. Rightly so.
Credentialed media are credentialed for a reason, and that’s all the reason they need to be in that briefing room.
Sanders got away with it on Monday, playing off the Thanksgiving holiday. And most folks took it in stride. Hopefully, that’s where it ends. But I believe her little stunt is just part and parcel of a longer, larger effort by this administration to undermine the credibility and stature of a free press in this country. And none of us should take that in stride, least of all the press.