On the heels of Donald Trump's extraordinarily combative news conference last week came word over the weekend that the incoming administration might relocate the press corps outside of the White House's West Wing.
News outlets, understandably rattled, are searching for traction in a post-fact world so slippery that Trump has turned the term "fake news" against them. The New York Times's Jim Rutenberg deftly diagnosed the problem:
The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.
However, his prescription for White House reporters didn't even come close to reimagining how to approach covering Trump’s presidency. "A united front would have given the reporters stronger footing," he wrote of the melee that broke out during Trump’s press conference. I agree with the sentiment, but as someone who values good reporting and also attended White House briefings for a couple years, I would like to pose something a bit more radical to mainstream news outlets: Why even send reporters to Trump press conferences?
Trump, while a totally repugnant human being, is a master manipulator. The press conferences are sheer sport for him and by continuing to engage in them, reporters are simply setting themselves up as targets on his terrain. A president already has an unfair advantage in the very controlled setting of a presser. The two premises that help level the playing field for reporters when cross examining any president are: 1) that facts matter, and 2) that serving the American people is primary to a president’s own self interests.
Since neither of those two things hold true for Trump, press conferences will be rendered useless for the next four years. They will be nothing but misinformation forums in which Trump spreads lies and feeds his ego by berating and belittling any reporter who asks him a question he doesn't like.
With a normal president, reporters wield shame and guilt as antidotes to an administration that isn’t making good on campaign pledges or doing good for the masses. But with a clear sociopath at the helm, leveling shame and guilt will be a little like taking fly swatters to the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
White House press briefings are likely to be a similarly futile exercise. And trust me, I actually believe that press conferences can provide an important give and take between a governing authority and a press corps that is not only digging for the truth but also representing the interests of the American people. But the people behind the podium have to buy into the premise that they are there to serve the voters. There has been absolutely no indication—either at the White House or on Capitol Hill—that Republicans believe there should be any check whatsoever on their power. Least of all, a check provided by reporters.
So let's imagine what it would look like for mainstreamers to abandon White House press conferences and redeploy those resources.
Here's what a presser would look like: Breitbart, Infowars, and World Net Daily representatives duking it out to ask Trump or his minion Sean Spicer some eye-popping questions. Talk about must-see reality TV. No joke—this could do a world of good. It would both deprive Trump of the contentious interactions he thrives on, and/or prove deeply revealing to everyone other than the 35-40 percent of Trump followers who are still hoping he guns someone down on 5th Avenue (i.e. sane viewers). News outlets will likely be allowed to broadcast the events and use Trump’s answers just the same as if they had representatives there. It's a win no matter what and will kill his ability to use mainstream reporters as punching bags. And if they decide to discontinue briefings altogether, reporters can spend more time on the Hill, which will be leaking like a sieve.
As for what news outlets could do besides be witnesses to a slaughter: They can either go the way of Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, doggedly reporting around Trump rather than trying to report through him.
Or they could make an honest effort to pour resources into hiring local reporters in order to publicize all the ways in which Trump and Republicans will surely fail voters—even and especially those who voted for them. When coal jobs don't come back, give miners a voice. When millions of Trump voters lose their health insurance, give the uninsured a voice. When the elderly start seeing changes in their Social Security benefits, give them a voice.
In fact, be targeted about it. Obviously, news outlets can't hire local reporters across the country. But how about picking 25 swing districts where GOP congressional members will be particularly vulnerable in the 2018 midterms?
For national reporters and editors, this idea of boycotting Trump news conferences is going to sound radical (even if it doesn't to readers of this site). But the goal isn’t to stop covering Trump, it’s to cover him in ways that don’t distort and serve as a distraction to the truth. If they’ve got better ideas, I'd love to see them. But right now, all I hear is an acknowledgment that Trump is bulldozing reporters, who are willing accomplices to their own demise. Weak calls for “solidarity,” even if they get a buy in from members of the press, won't provide any protection against a White House that has no ability or interest to act in good faith.
Focus elsewhere, dear media. What Trump's administration does or doesn't do in the realm of governance is newsworthy, but attending his press conferences won't shed even a speck of light on that.