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Blackout at the White House

Recently, the White House communications division made the decision to change the way it presents information to the journalists assigned to covering the Trump administration from inside the people's house, not allowing cameras in some briefings, only allowing non-live audio in others.

For perhaps the first time in the cable news era, White House press briefings are significant daily television events, and for a few reasons.

First, news moves faster now more than ever.

Next, President Trump has been a polarizing figure, beloved or loathed by many. His administration's decisions carry change and importance.

Then, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and his team, as acknowledged by White House officials including the president, have had a hard time delivering similar information and insight. Often times, members of the administration are in full conflict with each other on public messaging. In some cases, the messaging has been demonstrably false. This should be concerning to every American regardless of support for the current leader.

And there is Spicer's delivery itself. While he has very often been given high marks by journalists as a person, his stumbles have been fodder for ridicule, not just by comedians, but by network news analysts. His style has often superseded the substance of his briefings, which is unfortunate. Delivery may count, but it's also incumbent upon everyone to listen beyond delivery. You shouldn't watch a press briefing hoping for a laugh and moments Saturday Night Live deems worthy of parody.

So why the reduction in on-camera briefings? Why the non-live audio? Here's what Spicer told Laura Ingraham on her radio show just days ago, as transcribed by CNN:

"The nice thing about turning the cameras off sometimes, and I find this, is that it is not 'performance art,' as you call it, that you end up having, I think sometimes, a more substantive discussion about actual issues because they're not trying to get their clip. They're not trying to figure out, 'How do I get on TV? How do I ask some snarky question?' You can actually focus on the substance of the issues."

I don't know how much water that explanation holds. Spicer has also said on days the president speaks, Mr. Trump is on camera and should be the on-camera face of the administration. But it's not as though the press secretary's briefing won't get covered and disseminated. Not all important topics will be discussed by the president in most cases.

The truth may be closer to the idea that the questions the White House was getting were not on the issues officials would like to talk about, specifically the investigation into Russia's alleged disruption efforts in the 2016 election. No administration gets fully favorable questions. No administration is happy with press coverage. Each deals with tough topics that don't show the president and his team in a light they'd prefer to be in. Truth must be spoken to power, and there is validity in questioning what the press office is hiding from and whether it is providing answers to valid questions on valid topics.

A debate over the time the national media outlets are giving the topic of their access in relation to other issues is also certainly valid. There are a lot of things facing American citizens and affecting their day-to-day lives that the Trump administration impacts. Russia has not been and is not the only important issue in America, though on many days, it completely dominates show rundowns,

There is a line walked daily in television newsrooms. It sits between informing the people about many important things and viewership. Ratings equal money. Without viewers, the ratings are not high, which means lower advertising rates, which means less money to pay for people and things, which means lower quality, which leads to fewer viewers. For many viewers, drama, action and scandal is preferred. News organizations have to balance a lot. The business is completely lacking in simplicity, despite what armchair quarterbacks may think. Perhaps a major chunk of the problem lies with so many Americans choosing drama above most.

One place drama is being found is with media outlets spending time discussing their displeasure with the means by which they can present a press briefing and rollbacks on access. It can and has come across to many as moaning and groaning, which will only lessen the perception of the media in skeptical Americans' minds. Clear context must be given as to why reduced presentation ability is important to citizens, not just to media members. It's not about journalists. It's about journalism.

Having spent more than a decade in television news, my reaction to a lack of cameras in the briefing is distain. TV journalists provide moving images to go with sound. To not have those is counter to training, instinct and need. Should the American people be able to see the taxpayer-funded representatives of the federal government and its executive branch explain what is happening, especially in this media age of the internet and live video at the hands of the average citizen at most moments of the day? Of course.

Some have suggested that journalists choose not to cover no-camera, no live audio briefings. However, that would prevent questions from being asked and holding this or any administration to necessary accountability. While television journalists feel a viable need for moving images, shouldn't the journalism aspect come before the television part?

That is where the Trump administration holds leverage. Media outlets will be hesitant to pull back its journalists in protest of the policies of the press office. Would they be allowed back in?

Ultimately, the contents of press briefings must get out. At a bare minimum, they must be fully presented in audio form on days when cameras aren't allowed. The American people must at least be able to hear the questions and the answers. But should it be live? Absolutely. Consider that we are in an era where instant news and reaction can reach the journalists in the room during the briefing and spawn further questions and discussions. Should cameras be allowed on? Again, absolutely.

As with many topics, political leanings seem to have overtaken opinions of right and wrong. Consider this no matter where you stand on this specific situation: if a polarizing Democratic president and his or her press office decided to ban cameras and live audio from most daily press briefings, how would you feel? Would you be OK with the decision, or would you believe the administration was trying to hide something or hide from something? How much would you want media outlets to discuss the reduced access as opposed to other news items?

With today's briefing after the tape-delayed audio was played on the network my TV was on, CNN, the first question from the anchor to the network's reporter in the White House was about the Supreme Court's ruling on the travel ban earlier in the day. After a brief recap of Spicer's reaction, the second question was about no cameras being allowed in the briefing, a topic discussed in the segment significantly longer, including a passionate commentary by the reporter and analysis from CNN's media analyst who explained his displeasure with the camera and live audio ban. The travel ban was eventually returned to with a much lengthier discussion, and the media's briefing concerns were not revisited in that or subsequent segments in the hour.

It was a prime example of where my bottom lines on this lie:

  • The American people should now, more than ever, hold its government to high standards of transparency and accountability. To move backwards in the visual media age casts a shadow and sows distrust more than anything else.

  • Pressure in the public square and a highlighting of the camera and live audio ban may be a tool to try and force a change in policy, but without proper context on the importance of the cameras and live audio, too many will consider it petty moaning by entitled people.

  • Journalists fight for access because they want to present the American people with as much information as possible so they can make what they believe are the best choices for themselves and their families.

  • Journalism should be presented without bias and spin.

  • Right is right and wrong is wrong on a great many topics regardless of political views. If it's wrong when one side does it, it's probably wrong when all sides do it.

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