BROOKE GLADSTONE: As Trump bulldozes forward, everyone is figuring out how to behave, including, of course, the press. So let’s follow Bob on his field trip to the White House briefing room.
BOB GARFIELD: Except for the demolition of the inaugural reviewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue, at first glance everything here at the White House seems pretty much status quo, the line of TV production cabanas by the driveway, the pitter- patter of little features underway in the West Wing's cramped warren of press cubicles and the routine rundown of the president's activities.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Hey, guys, good afternoon. Yesterday, the president brought leaders of both parties together to discuss his next nomination of the [FADE UNDER BOB GARFIELD] supreme court. It’s an incredibly productive conversation as you can see from the President’s tweets. He will announce that nomination next Thursday. The president also spoke with Prime Minister Modi of India yesterday....
[SPICER REMARKS UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: In reality though, nothing this week was as it used to be. But to understand how and why, we must briefly review last Saturday at the CIA, the first official appearance of President Donald Trump. Standing in front of the hallowed wall of stars memorial for personnel killed in the line of duty, Trump promptly insulted his audience’s intelligence by denying that a week earlier he’d literally insulted their intelligence, belittling their analysis of Russian hacking and comparing them to Nazis. But no, he told Saturday's crowd, that was all the media's invention.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: As you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.
And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community, and I just…
BOB GARFIELD: It was - brilliant! We know this because that's what Trump later informed ABC's David Muir.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: That speech was a home run.
BASEBALL ANNOUNCER: Back in the air to center, back at the wall of stars, it’s - gone! What a start!
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, what a start. Trump got savaged by pundits left and right for using the Memorial Wall as a backdrop for pettiness and lies. And that incident was the backdrop, later Saturday, for the first White House briefing room appearance of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who offered a slew of false statistics about the previous day's inauguration crowd, berated the press for disparaging the president and, before stalking out, issued a vague threat.
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: There's been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable, and I'm here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re gonna hold the press accountable, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: The next day, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway explained Spicer's phony claims as “alternative facts,” setting the stage for the alternate reality that White House coverage this week quickly became. When the press corps showed up Monday for its first official work week, it was under attack, under threat and at pains to verify fundamental administration statements from crowd counts to imaginary voter fraud and maybe even good morning.
JORDAN FABIAN: The briefing has sort of taken on a different tenor.
BOB GARFIELD: Jordan Fabian who covers the new administration for The Hill.
JORDAN FABIAN: You know, we’ve had to, I think, take a more adversarial stance against some of the dubious claims that are put out there by the president and by the press secretary, but I think all of us will be doing some, some extra checking.
MAJOR GARRETT: I don't need to tell the country that it’s learned a new bit of terminology, “alternate facts.”
BOB GARFIELD: Major Garrett of CBS News.
MAJOR GARRETT: Those are all sweeping differences in the way this administration communicates and seeks to describe that which it is communicating, whether there’s any fact basis behind it or not. This administration is comfortable on its current terrain. The great question politically and journalistically for our country is, can it remain so?
BOB GARFIELD: As that question is being answered, one obvious new wrinkle is who gets to do the asking? Decades of tradition have had the Associated Press getting the first question, followed by the TV networks, and so on. Press Secretary Spicer has discarded that practice in favor of friendly conservative stalwarts and the farthest fringes of the right-wing media universe.
PRESS SECRETARY SPICER: With that, I look forward to taking your questions. Daniel Halper, New York Post. Dave Boyer, Washington Times. Paul Bedard - in the best interest - John Gizzi.
BOB GARFIELD: Those last two from the Washington Examiner and Newsmax, which, eh – just check it out online. And maybe next to show up will be one of the president's favorite media voices, the conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, he who claims, among other paranoiac perversities, that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. Jones says there's a seat in the room awaiting him, if his Infowars listeners would just keep, you know, sending money.
ALEX JONES: And here's the deal, I know I get White House credentials, we've already been offered them, we're going to get them, but I've just got to spend the money to send somebody there. I want to make sure it's even worth it.
BOB GARFIELD: The good news and possibly exceptionally good news is that such access has grown not just for the great right-wing media conspiracy but for the press corps as a whole. Major Garrett.
MAJOR GARRETT: Donald Trump likes to appear before reporters, so we've had really solid access to seeing him, hearing him talk about what he's doing, why he thinks it’s important. We've also had, from a television perspective, a lot more B roll of the people he's meeting with than we ever did under the Obama administration, business executives milling around the Roosevelt Room, we’re listening to their conversations as they talk, as they see the president come in.
BOB GARFIELD: As we reported during that administration, access to President Obama himself was reduced to the vanishing point. At photo ops, says Jordan Fabian of The Hill, Obama’s staff would literally shoo reporters away. So far under Trump, by contrast –
JORDAN FABIAN: We’ve seen the president interact candidly with members of Congress, with business leaders, with union leaders, and we've gotten him to make news on things like the Supreme Court picks because we had the opportunity to be in the room and ask him questions. So it’s not [LAUGHS] – it’s not bad all across the board.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, getting a president to say words out loud is not the same thing as getting honest responsive answers. When access becomes a commodity, history shows, journalism tends to lose in the transaction, even if just by serving as unwitting players in presidential theater.
One novel aspect of the first week's labors was a sense of cause and effect because Trump so obsessively follows TV coverage, whether a bilious comment from Fox's Bill O'Reilly or a press briefing question to Spicer, policy announcements have materialized in an instant - CBS Correspondent Margaret Brennan.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yesterday, I asked Sean Spicer if there was going to be investigation of what the president said was widespread voter fraud when it came to the popular vote. At the time, he dismissed it. A few questions later, he said, maybe the White House would do it, and then overnight the president of the United States tweeted that he's actually ordering one.
BOB GARFIELD: Far-reaching decisions appear to be prompted by what the president happens to catch on TV, what Kellyanne Conway might call an “alternative policy task force.” But don’t mistake that mechanism for respect. On Thursday, presidential strategist and alt-right icon Steve Bannon derided the mainstream media for, quote, “zero integrity, zero intelligence and no hard work.”
During my White House visit, I asked Reuters’ Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, about pushing back at such assaults on the very legitimacy of the free press.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, let’s go back to Saturday. Sean comes out, yells at everybody. There’s a veiled threat in there, I – at least I heard one about being held accountable.
JEFF MASON: I was very surprised on Saturday by how Sean handled that statement, but I'm encouraged to see that on Monday his tone was a lot different and that he took questions, which he did not do on Saturday. We would certainly encourage taking questions from reporters whenever possible and certainly when you're gonna make a statement that is critical of the press.
BOB GARFIELD: And this notion that you will be held accountable, do you have any idea what he had in mind and, you know, what leverage he might have over the press?
JEFF MASON: I don't. I – you’d have to speak to him about that. I, I can’t account for what he's talking about there.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, have you asked him about it? Have you got an inquiry [LAUGHS] in?
JEFF MASON: I have not.
BOB GARFIELD: One way of seeing that is that Mason is just plowing forward, being professional and not getting sucked into the drama of Trumpian invective. Another way of looking at it is – dude, when exactly, with the First Amendment under siege, do you press the freakin’ panic button, if only for the sake of the public we serve?
I asked Jordan Fabian what happens when our audiences can't believe White House news, not because we can't be trusted but because what we dutifully, professionally, dispassionately report itself is not to be trusted?
JORDAN FABIAN: Well, it’s certainly a challenge. I, I think we’ve seen what’s happened with the voter fraud issue, with the crowd size issue. It will be interesting to see what happens when there's – you know, God forbid, we face a crisis as a country, you know, he has to talk about casualty counts and an overseas attack or, God forbid, an attack on the United States, you know, natural disasters, things like that, where government information is paramount. So I think when that happens, we’ll see what happens.
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BOB GARFIELD: Yes, we will see, if we’re not all in some accountability “black site” when it happens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the White House has thrown out the playbook, so why should the press corps play by the rules?
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.