All I can figure is the lunch buffet in the press room must be tremendous
Posted Monday night, January 8, 2018.
Big Brother and Little Sister: President Trump telecommutes to a press conference taking place just down the hall as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders waits for him to be done so she can get back to her job of lying to White House press corps. Image courtesy NBC 4 Washington. January 4, 2018.
Other day, in a tweet about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ latest wrestling match with the truth, the inestimable Mr Pierce observed:
Sarah Huck just called Michael Wolff an "author nobody ever heard of before today." Why people sit through this preposterous woman's daily exercise remains a national embarrassment.
I’ve wondered about this, why journalists bother. It’s not just that Huckabee Sanders is a paid liar. She is the top paid liar. Second only to Trump himself in this criminal administration’s daily assault and battery on reality. Her job is to try to turn the President’s gibbering in person and on Twitter into parsable sentences that resemble presidential utterances but in no way except by accident resemble the truth and then defend those sentences against challenges from reporters armed with facts, a job she’s ferociously good at. There’s no chance she’s going to back down or backtrack, no possibility she’s going throw up her hands, smile sheepishly, and say, “Well, you got me with that one, Jim.” no matter how tough and incisive and indicting the question. Given that, why bother?
Why waste your time waiting to be called on to be lied to when you could be out knocking on doors and wearing out shoe leather practicing actual journalism? But like I said, it’s not just she’s a lying machine.
It’s that she’s not lying to reporters. She’s lying over their heads. Like all Republican politicians and their flunkies and apologists, she’s lying to other Republicans. Republican voters.
Always---always--Republicans are talking to the suckers, the ordinary voters they’ve bamboozled into voting for them, with the object of keeping them bamboozled.
This doesn’t require much effort. The suckers meet them halfway.
Suckers want to be suckered. They want the easy answer, the quick cure, the guaranteed happiness and riches. In the case of Republicans, they want to know that their problems aren’t their fault and all it’ll take to solve them is punishing the people they’ve been told are at fault. It helps that the base, the truest of true believers, are ignoramuses who believe, like the president they idolize and adore, that they already know all they need to know and what they don’t know isn’t worth knowing. It’s a good bet that few of them had heard of Michael Wolff before Wednesday---actually it’s a good bet that many educated, well-read, and even politically informed liberals hadn’t heard of Wolff either. There’s only so many names you can keep in your head. Most people don’t read bylines anyway. And Wolff isn’t really in the front ranks of working journalists. At least, he wasn’t before the fire and fury Fire and Fury’s stirred up. But, thanks to Sanders, the suckers know that Wolff is nobody they need to know and they can skip buying his book and ignore all the news it’s drummed up. Sanders can take pride in another job well done. The suckers have been suckered again. And why the press corps wants to help her out with that, I have no idea.
Maybe the lunch buffet in the press room is that tremendous.
I’m kidding. I know why they keep showing up. They have to. It’s their job.
Fans of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein---who I suspect are really fans of All the President’s Men, the movie more than the book---are wont to point out that they broke the Watergate story without attending any White House press briefings. (There was a lot of this last year but it was generally in reaction to political journalists’ carping that Hillary Clinton wasn’t holding enough press conferences to suit them.) It’s true Woodward and Bernstein broke the story and did the reporting the kept the story going when most of the national press and most Americans were focused on the Presidential campaign and the winding down of the Vietnam War, not to mention detente with the Soviet Union and the opening up of China. But they weren’t the only reporters on it. The Washington Post wasn’t the only news outlet giving it attention. (The reporter featured most prominently in the movie Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House starring Liam Neeson is Sandy Smith, then of TIME magazine and whose beat was the FBI. Woodward’s barely in it and Bernstein’s not in it at all.) And most of the other reporters chasing the story, including other reporters at the Post, were, unlike Woodward and Bernstein, regular political reporters, who reported on it as part of doing their jobs as political reporters, and another part of their jobs was attending press conferences.
(I expect the idea that press conferences are a waste of reporters’ time will go back into circulation when The Post goes into general release this weekend.)
There are a few independent operators, proprietors-editors-reporters with their own one-person newsrooms. They are their own bosses. They could decide it’s not worth their time to attend any more of Huckabee Sanders fibfests and cut different less-traveled paths to stories. That’s what I.F. Stone did.
But most White House reporters have bosses. They're employees. No matter their status as professionals and celebrities, they still have to answer to the news outlets that employ them. And the people who run those outlets expect certain things. They expect their reporters to cover the news the way it's "supposed" to be covered. Which is the way it's always been covered. Your beat's the White House, you go to the press briefings. That's the way it's done because that's the way it's always been done.
Tell your boss you’re not going to cover any more press conferences and they’ll react the way they would to a cop reporter who told them she’s not going to stop in at the police station anymore or visit any more crime scenes, she’s come up with a new way to work her beat. It’ll take some convincing. Even if you’re not fired and you’re given free rein, someone else is going to be assigned to your former seat, because, what do you think, we’re going to leave the White House uncovered? Let ourselves get scooped Monday through Thursday and twice on Friday?
Never mind that rarely in the whole history of press briefings has actual news come out of an exchange between a press secretary and reporters. Making and breaking news isn't the point for either party.
Press briefings are designed to be routine exercises administrations use to pass along information they want to get out and reporters gather information that might be useful later. Reporters don't expect to get important stories. They're looking for clues as to where there might be a story to go digging for once the briefing's over.
When the administration wants to deliver information that's news in itself---or that it regards as news or wants treated as news---it's usually delivered by someone other than the press secretary.
The only time routine press briefings become newsworthy in themselves is when the routine is broken, usually when reporters suspect the press secretary is withholding important information for reasons they don't think are kosher or that the information the press secretary is delivering is in fact misinformation---that is we they think they're being lied to or used to deceive and bamboozle the America people---and decide not to put up with it.
This has happened in the course of every presidency since press conferences were invented. It happened often during the Vietnam War. It happened even more often during Watergate, which is why we still invoke the name of Ron Ziegler as a synecdoche for government mendacity.
It happens just about every time Huckabee Sanders steps up to the podium.
In other words, the reason for staying away from her performances---she lies and lies belligerently---is the reason her performances make the news---some reporters won't put up with it. Which makes every press conference a telenovela and we folks at home tune in for the drama.
And there it is. A part of every journalist’s job is to sell advertising. Eyeballs and clicks, that’s the game. If there wasn’t money in covering Huckabee Sanders’ press briefings they’d only run on C-Span. But our eyeballs and our clicks pay the bills, so to speak. Every press conference is a telenovela and we tune in for the drama.
There’s a not unjustified fear that the political media will “normalize” Trump by covering him as if he’s a normal president. Heck, as if he’s a normal human being. And stories like this from the New York Times’ Peter Baker give grounds for that fear. But the real way journalists normalize Trump is doing their jobs as they normally have, which is to cover the President as if he’s the President. Every time he’s shown descending the steps of Air Force One, meeting with a foreign leader, welcoming a sports team to the White House, showing up at the scene of a disaster even if only to cynically pose for a photo op, he’s normalized. And it’s not just when he’s on camera or at the center of story. The trappings of the Presidency that surround everybody and everything associated with the White House normalize him. So every time TV reporters deliver reports standing in front of the White House Trump is normalized, even if the report is that he’s out of control, out of his depth, and out of his mind. He’s still the guy who lives in the White House and commands the world’s attention because of it. The press briefings are part of that process. And Sanders knows it and counts on it and makes use of it to continue with the bamboozle
And the fact that we political junkies tune in makes as normal makes us complicit along with the reporters in the bamboozle. If this is a national embarrassment, as Pierce says, then we’re embarrassing ourselves.