What Sean Spicer's first news conference tells us about White House press relations under Trump

Press secretary Sean Spicer held his first press conference yesterday, setting the tone for White House press relations under the Trump administration. 

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivers a statement while television screens show pictures of President Donald Trump's inauguration at the press briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

The first White House press conference under President Trump was not quite as press friendly as some may have hoped. 

Press secretary Sean Spicer used his time with reporters on Saturday to criticize the media for allegedly underestimating the number of people who attended the president's inaugural ceremony the previous day, claiming that journalists had deliberately misstated the size of the crowd to "[sow] divisions about tweets and false narratives." He made an unverified claim that the global audience for Trump's inauguration was the largest ever, and falsely stated that more people used the D.C. metro system on Saturday than on the day of Barack Obama's. 

At the end of his statement, Mr. Spicer did not take questions from reporters. 

The unorthodox press conference, which came on the same day that the president called journalists "among the most dishonest human beings on Earth," added to mounting concerns about the relationship between the White House and the press under the Trump administration. Since the now-president's election, media observers have predicted a dramatic redefinition of White House press relations. While Trump supporters have lauded the president and his team for what they see as holding the mainstream media accountable for perceived biases, Trump opponents and media experts have expressed concern over a lack of transparency and ability for the White House to push false narratives by bypassing traditional media. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in November

Tweet by tweet, candidate and President-elect Trump has been building his own direct connection to the nation’s voters. He’s a master at using the media as a foil, mocking it as failing, inaccurate, and out of touch. To Trump, reporters are both a conduit and a prop. It’s no accident they were penned up on the floor of his rallies like zoo exhibits.

For mainstream media organizations, this treatment represents a threat and an opportunity. They’re under tremendous business stress as Facebook and Google take away their old advertising dollars. But Trump is a huge, important subject. He brings in a flood of clicks and viewers. His policy proposals – build a wall, ban Muslim entry, bring back waterboards – would change America’s essence. To many journalists he’s a reminder of why they’re journalists in the first place.

These trends will collide in the White House Briefing Room on Jan. 21. (If President Trump doesn’t kick the press out of the West Wing and end press conferences, that is.) How the media handle the challenge of Trump – and vice versa – could well determine what the media landscape will look like four years hence.

"In some ways I don’t think [the incoming Trump administration] wants to interact with the institutional press, which is a huge problem," Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University in New York, told the Monitor. "Our independent press is an integral part of our democracy, it has been since the beginning of our country, and the public really needs to know what’s going on."

"People love social media," he added, "but it’s not the same as having critical viewpoints or legitimate, in depth institutional coverage of public policy."

Speaking on Saturday, Spicer said the president would continue to bypass traditional media by communicating with the American people directly through social media and other communication channels, as he did throughout his campaign.  

"The American people deserve better, and so long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people, where his focus will always be," the press secretary said.

The press conference drew criticism from a number of high-profile media and political figures, both liberal and conservative. CNN commentator Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman, described the briefing as a "calculated attempt to delegitimize any questioning of @realDonaldTrump by a free press," while conservative commentator Bill Kristol said it was "embarrassing, as an American, to watch." 

Ultimately, wrote Chris Cillizza, a political blogger for The Washington Post, a healthy democracy requires the media and the government must have a balanced relationship.

"This is 100% Trump’s right. He has the ability – thanks to his social media following – to end run the media," wrote Mr. Cillizza in reaction to Spicer's statement. "But, it is 100% the media’s right to still serve as a fact checker on what Trump and his senior staff say." 

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