American Culture

If they lie, journalists should stop covering the White House. Let the interns do it.

sean-spicer-white-housePresident Donald’s press secretary boldly and bluntly lied to the White House press corps last week. Yawn.

Well, so what? Politicians and their spear carriers have prevaricated, evaded, fibbed, misinformed, misdirected, and dissembled since the dawn of government.

But Sean Spicer lied. He did not disguise the lie. He told lies easily contravened. He did so acting as the representative of the president of the United States. He did so just days after promising he wouldn’t lie.

Media navel gazers pounced. The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, said Spicer’s lies represented “remarks made over the casket at the funeral of access journalism.” Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, said on NPR, “The American people question whether the press report things accurately and fairly. … And so the press has invited this vulnerability onto itself, and we’re watching this live now on TV.”

What should the press do about press conferences conducted by either President Donald or Spicer? After all, war has been declared by Spicer: “[S]ome members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting” and “We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well.”

It’s significant that a president who constructed his campaign on falsehoods should begin an administration with a spokesman who lied. Apparently, consistency reigns at the White House.

But too much boo-hooing by media navel gazers obscures what journalists are supposed to do: Tell stories that shed light on the human condition. Such stories aren’t found in the White House briefing room. Journalists, instead of sitting in a room well-lit for television and listening to a politician or the politician’s flack, should hit the bricks. Do your jobs. Parking yourselves in front of politicians as they pontificate isn’t the right job.

Access journalism — a kind of symbiotic relationship between reporter and source — is dead in regard to covering a president, says WashPo’s Sullivan. She points to access journalism as a matter of stories “achieved by closeness to the source” – sitting in press briefings and conferences by the president or his representative.

Access journalism in general, and in particular when dealing with politicians, sports superstars, and celebrities, has been dead for a long time — probably since Twitter became of age. President Donald has joined King James (that’s Lebron, of course), and Beyonce in believing we don’t need no steekin’ press. Messaging to voters, fans, and consumers has passed from gatekeeper back to source.

So what about Spicer’s lies? Trump’s? KellyAnne’s? What should the members of the press do instead of quivering in the-sky-is-falling fear over the future of journalism? (Or the future of their access to the power-brokers?) When presented continually with “alternate facts,” what’s a journalist to do?


The White House press briefing room

Cancel the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Stop televising press conferences. (Oh, but what about the ratings? Viewers love conflict and controversy. Those are money-makers for the news business.) Best idea yet, from NYU’s Jay Rosen: Send in the interns. Let them cover the White House.

Take all that high-priced talent preening for the small screen, take all the columnists and pundits, take all the long-time D.C. “elite” reporters and broadcasters and send them packing to do actual journalism rather than try to ask long, convoluted questions of the president of the United States — especially since those questions rarely lead to meaningful, intelligible answers.

If President Donald, surrounded in the Oval Office by white men, signs an executive order reinstating the global gag rule about abortion, the high-priced talent that normally hovers around the White House sniffing for access ought to be out on the road.

Who does the rule affect? In what way? How do abortion opponents and proponents deal with the rule? What is the cost of adherence to the rule? Enforcement of the rule? How does the doctor-patient relationship change? Who now advises pregnant women? And how? How does this impact women financially?

White House pronouncements from a lectern in the West Wing’s press briefing room (if President Donald doesn’t move it) can be handled by interns. They’re used to taking press releases. Or use a remotely operated single camera (drones are popular in the White House). Or leave C-SPAN to cover them.

Journalists should be following the shoe-leather code of Jimmy Breslin, quoted by E&P’s Joe Strupp 13 years ago in a piece headlined “Hard Times: Journalism’s Credibility Problem”:

You still walk, you climb stairs and all the stories are at the top of the stairs. You get into trouble when you get there using an elevator. They [reporters] don’t climb the stairs anymore, they don’t understand the shoe leather, they don’t teach that in their high-class schools. They are highly trained people who sit in their offices and write term papers. They won’t sully themselves going to a greasy housing project or standing out in the rain for a few hours.

The fundamentals that produce credible, reliable journalism about the human condition  haven’t changed. Yes, the electronic means of reaching a source, crafting the story, and distributing the story are new and different and exciting.

Get out of the newsroom. Forgo the nonsensical White House briefings. Talk to the people at the sharp end of stick, not the White House bullies announcing the existence of the stick. You do the former; let the interns do the latter.

After all: Who are journalists supposed to be working for? And why? Readers should be asking those questions of journalists everywhere. Because this is a time when people really need answers.

Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. — H.L. Mencken