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A History Of The Changes In Press Briefings


As the Senate proceeds with its health care bill behind closed doors, the issue of transparency has come up again at the White House. President Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, held an on-camera media briefing today for the first time in eight days. Spicer said he thought the recent complaints about White House information sharing were misplaced.


SEAN SPICER: When you look at the number of availabilities and interviews that the president's given, it's pretty significant compared to past administrations. So I think that we - while you guys will always advocate for greater transparency and more access, I think that we have done a very good job of not just providing opportunities here at a daily briefing but also making ourselves available as a staff, you know, almost 20, 24 hours a day when it comes down to it.

CORNISH: Here to talk about this debate is Ron Elving, NPR senior editor and correspondent. Hey there, Ron.


CORNISH: So we saw a number of TV correspondents on air in recent days saying the White House was essentially shutting down on them. What's going on?

ELVING: There have been just five on-camera briefings this month. Now, that compares to one every other day during the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Beyond that, which is particularly acute obviously for broadcasters - beyond that, there's been a proliferation of what we might call useless answers. For example, today Sean Spicer was asked if the president had seen the Senate version of the health care bill that you've just been talking to professor Zelizer about. And he said he didn't know. And he was asked if President Trump believed the Russians had tried to hack our election last year, and he said this.


SPICER: I have not sat down and asked him about his specific reaction to them, so I'd be glad to touch base and get back to you.

ELVING: So at some point, you have reporters from all the media, not just broadcasters, asking, why are we here?

CORNISH: And they're not the only ones (laughter) who ask this question, right? I mean is there a sense at this point who these daily briefings are really meant to serve?

ELVING: Ideally they should be informing the general public eager for information. They want to know how their government works, what it's doing. And these briefings can serve that function much of the time for much of the public. But let's face it. They also exist as a kind of collective for the media and for the White House itself. They serve the needs of the news organizations that send reporters to cover them, and that's especially true for the cable TV operations that carry them live as a feature of their daily programming.

And when you get over to the White House, well, even the most media-averse presidents - think Richard Nixon, for example - have come around to seeing that briefings at the White House are a marvelous way to reach the public.

CORNISH: You mention Nixon, but how far back can we go in terms of these briefings?

ELVING: Well, the first reporters started going to the White House on a daily basis in the 1890s. Woodrow Wilson had the first formal press conference. Both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt liked to have lots of informal off-the-record sessions with reporters. And the first...

CORNISH: So off the record is not a terrible thing.

ELVING: Well, off the record is an old thing. It has its uses. But if it's the only way you get to talk to the president, as it often has been, that's certainly not a good thing for the public.

CORNISH: So what are the other ground rules? I mean who does determine in the end the format, the visibility?

ELVING: Ultimately it's the White House. It's their real estate. They negotiate with the news organizations through the White House Correspondents Association, which does a very good job of trying to please everybody. And they want to keep the symbiosis going. They want to serve their needs and those of the media. And ultimately the White House decides how to handle the media, and the media then decide how they're going to handle the president.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.