White House news conferences out of the White House: more access or less press?

The Trump transition team is considering moving White House news conferences out of the building, sparking fears it will diminish the role of the White House press corps. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
President-elect Donald Trump, left, accompanied by Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, pauses as he takes a question from a member of the media at Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Fla., Dec. 21, 2016. The Trump team is considering moving White House news conference out of the building.

Amid concerns a Trump presidency restrict freedom of the press, members of President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration said Sunday that he is considering moving news conferences out of the White House to open them up to more reporters than the 49-seat briefing room in the building allows.

“The press room that people see on TV is very, very tiny,” said incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on ABC’s “This Week.” The Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door “is the White House, where you can fit four times the amount of people in the press conference, allowing more press, more coverage from all over the country.”

Mr. Priebus, who repeated this idea on the talk-show circuit Sunday, was specifically responding to host George Stephanopoulos’s question about a report Esquire published hours earlier that alleges the Trump transition team has discussed moving the White House press corps from its workspace inside the building. But Priebus could have just as well been responding to mounting worries about Trump’s hostility toward the media, on display at his first news conference in nearly six months last week, when he and CNN’s Jim Acosta clashed over the network’s reporting  about an unverified dossier.

While some have said Trump’s treatment of the press thus far is a preview of what’s to come, the Trump team has responded by insisting more reporters is better, even if it means upending conventions established over the 100-year history of the White House press corps. But such an approach might not differ radically from those of other presidential transitions.

Priebus, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer all insisted Sunday that larger news conferences will lead to more access. Priebus said on ABC’s “This Week” and later on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that conversations have revolved around moving news conferences from the briefing room to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building “for the first few weeks or the first month or so” for “more access.”

Mr. Pence said in an interview that aired on CBS’s “Face the Nation” the same day that any change to the White House press corps would be to “accommodate the increased interest” in the new administration, but that “no decision has been made” on whether to do so.

In a statement to ABC News, Mr. Spicer added that the transition team has also “looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity to accommodate members of media including talk radio, bloggers, and others.”

But such considerations come at a moment of turbulent relations between the Trump team and the media. In its report, Esquire quoted an unnamed senior Trump official as calling the press the “opposition party.”

“I want ‘em out of the building,” the senior official told Esquire, about talks to move the press corps to the White House Conference Center or the Executive Office Building. “We are taking back the press room.”

Page Six’s columnist Richard Johnson was also reporting that a candidate who lost to Spicer in competition for the job of White House press secretary first proposed that members of the press corps be subject to drug testing, a consideration Mr. Johnson said Spicer told him he supports for “security measures.”

Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, his critics highlighted his threats to sue newspapers or journalists and to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to take newspapers to court; his attacks and insults to members of the media; and his blacklisting of countless news outlets. But Trump will not be the first president to have a less-than-cordial relationship with the press, as Peter Grier and Harry Bruinius noted in The Christian Science Monitor in  November.

“Presidents and the press have had fraught relations since the beginning of the US republic, of course. The current structure for their dealings is shaped by a hundred years of experience,” they write. “Some presidents, irritated by leaks and coverage they deemed negative, have tried to limit press access and even targeted reporters with the power of the US government.”

A group of correspondents created the White House press corps in 1913 because former President Woodrow Wilson threatened to do away with news conferences because he complained “certain evening newspapers” quoted remarks he considered off the record, according to the White House Correspondent’s Association. While these correspondents first agreed on a code of professional conduct, one of their next official orders of business was to ensure press conferences included accredited reporters, according to Stephen Ponder, author of “Managing the Press: Origins of the Media Presidency.”

At the time of the Wilson administration, White House press conferences had turned into Washington free-for-alls, including hangers-on who competed with one another for “attention and for ‘scoops’ or tips that might influence the stock market,” Mr. Ponder wrote in his account of the presidency and the media from 1897 to 1933.

In the hundred years since, news conferences have developed into a meeting of the president and the press as equals, writes the Monitor’s Mr. Grier.

Enter Trump.  

Trump ran his press conference like a show, with applause from staffers and multiple speakers. He flattered and barked at the assembled journalists in turn, at one point shouting down a CNN reporter who was trying to ask a question.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a chief executive with a background in reality TV seems likely to bring some of the drama and staging of entertainment to this presidential ritual. A more restrained PEOTUS was not in evidence. He acted as he always has, with colorful asides, snipes at rivals, and lots of bombastic adjectives. Meet the new Trump, same as the old. 

In addition to concerns about a change in news conference venues, some have wondered whether the Trump administration will hold these briefings at all. In fact, NPR has tracked the extended run of no news conferences between Trump’s election Nov. 8 and the one he held last Wednesday, comparing it to the Obama and George W. Bush years. Two days after the Supreme Court found George W. Bush won in 2000, he held a press conference in Austin. President-elect Barack Obama, writes NPR, regularly fielded questions from reporters, taking questions from the White House press corps on 18 different occasions as president-elect.

Of course, concerns were raised during both the Bush and Obama presidencies about the relationships of those administrations to the press. 

“With almost every president I’ve studied, from Theodore Roosevelt onward, there have been concerns that the president is using his power to stifle or manipulate the press,” Rutgers historian David Greenberg, who’s written an award-winning history of the process, “Republic of Spin,” told the Monitor.  

“Even under Obama, you’ve had people say he’s worse (more secretive, more inaccessible) than his predecessors, which only shows how time flies, because [George W.] Bush was just as bad.”  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.