BIDLACK: Sarah Sanders and the passive press
Author: Hal Bidlack - January 10, 2018 - Updated: January 10, 2018
It was my honor to twice, during summer academic breaks from teaching at the AF Academy in the late 1990s, work on the National Security Council staff at the White House. I never walked through the White House gate without tingling a little bit and feeling awe at both the opportunity I was being given and the responsibility I shouldered in that hallowed place.
Long fascinated with the press, I attended the White House press briefings as often as I could. I stood as a fly on the wall in the back, listening to the reporters ask questions and to the press secretary’s answers. I really got a sense of being in the know. That is, at least, until I found myself increasingly depressed by what I saw, daily.
My subject area within the NSC was occasionally the focus of questions from the Fourth Estate. And in listening to those questions, I began to find my faith in the White House press corps somewhat shaken. All too often, the press seemed more interested in quick and pithy sound bites than actual in-depth answers. I do understand this — television and especially cable news need to attract viewers, and all too often, the more sensational, the better the ratings. I do get that. But I was increasingly bothered by the lack of quality questions and deep insight, on behalf of the American people.
I had a talk with the then-White House press secretary about my concerns and he said “you need to remember that the White House press corps is the elite of the media…,” and then his voice trailed off, and he added, “and maybe that tells us something.”
Fast forward to the Trump White House and the increasingly bizarre and surreal press briefings by Sarah Sanders. We know from many previous statements that this particular White House is not deeply committed to actual facts (e.g., biggest inaugural crowd ever, more bills done in first year than any other president). This should open the door to an aggressive and insightful press, really drilling down on the vital issues facing this country. But instead, all too often, it seems to me that reporters have adopted a dangerous level of superficiality and pacificity. Perhaps this is only an effort to get an actual answer to a question, as this White House is not known for a deep and detailed understanding of complex issues, but there is a danger here.
In an earlier column, I noted my belief that the Trump administration had brilliantly managed to cow the press into a near-stupor while simultaneously declaring the press as the active enemy of the president. Now, in an ongoing and increasingly worrisome desire to not be seen as creating “fake news,” today’s White House press corps all too often settles for vague and often non-sequitur answers to softball questions. And when a direct question is asked and dodged, rather than follow up and drill down, the next reporter asks a different question, again allowing Ms. Sanders off the hook.
And this is a press secretary that should not be let off the hook. From a long story about stupid reporters in a bar, to little digs from the podium (e.g., “I mean, if you want to call yourself ignorant, I’m not going to argue”), this is a White House that is simultaneously supremely shallow and yet also supremely convinced of its intellectual gravitas. Softball questions such as, when asking about the president’s statement on the new book attacking his administration, “did he write it in his own hand? Did he dictate it?” are not particularly helpful. I suspect there are more important questions to ask.
I want to be clear — I am a very strong supporter of a free and open press. I believe passionately in the First Amendment, and I see the press as a truly vital component of what keeps us free. Therefore, it is essential that they do their job forcefully and fully. This is profoundly true when we have a dishonest White House (your own partisanship can fill in when you think there was/is such a White House).
The press secretary is not a reporter’s friend. Rather, it is the person with whom, on a daily basis, the reporter jousts on behalf of the American people. It is long past time for the White House press corps to engage vigorously and enthusiastically with the Trump Administration.