Networks complain about lack of White House briefings, but choose not to air latest one

    White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders takes questions from reporters on Jan. 28, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

    After more than 40 days, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders returned to the lectern in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room Monday to take questions from reporters, ending the longest stretch without a briefing in decades, but if you were watching MSNBC or CNN, you easily could have missed it.

    The two cable networks alerted audiences that the briefing was coming up in their 3:00 hours, but when the event began, only Fox News and Fox Business carried the whole thing live. Some Twitter users were frustrated by the programming decision, noting that CNN and MSNBC have frequently discussed the apparent slow death of the daily briefing on air over the last few months.

    Sanders’ rare briefings often come when the administration has something specific to announce or media behavior to criticize. Monday was no different, as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin unveiled new sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and economic adviser Larry Kudlow challenged a Congressional Budget Office report on the economic cost of the recent shutdown.

    CNN and MSNBC reported the sanctions announcement with some panel discussion but they did not carry Bolton and Mnuchin’s responses to questions from the press or Kudlow’s comments live.

    “I don’t think it’s surprising that CNN and MSNBC would decide to pick and choose what they want to deliver to their audiences,” said John Carroll, a former journalist and longtime media analyst. “The White House press briefing has become this sort of theater that really only serves the White House’s interests.”

    Amid criticism for holding them so rarely, Sanders and President Donald Trump recently acknowledged how little purpose briefings typically have at this point.

    “The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the ‘podium’ much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press,” Trump tweeted last week. “I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway!”

    In a “Fox & Friends” interview last Wednesday, Sanders dismissed the briefings as “making stars out of people that want to become contributors on CNN” rather than informing the public.

    CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin initially told viewers Monday the network would pick up the briefing live when Sanders took questions. By the time that happened, though, “The Lead with Jake Tapper” had begun, spotlighting the evening’s live town hall with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.

    Similarly, MSNBC anchors joked about the drought in briefings beforehand and said they were standing by for it to start, but they then only aired scattered taped soundbites.

    “I s*** you not, MSNBC is talking about 2016 and not running the briefing,” tweeted editor Greg Pollowitz.

    MSNBC began taking this approach to White House events, which Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple has described as “babysitting,” last fall, reporting on and airing only the most newsworthy moments. During one late 2018 briefing, anchor Katy Tur interjected repeatedly to fact-check Sanders with correspondents and guests.

    The decision not to air Sanders’ briefing live Monday follows recent hand-wringing by network executives and media critics over how to cover a live primetime address by the president on border security. MSNBC also cut away earlier this month when an event Trump billed as a press conference turned out to be a series of laudatory statements from members of the Border Patrol union.

    “You could argue CNN and MSNBC waited too long to start exercising editorial judgment in terms of the free airtime they would give Trump, but I think the idea that the news media are the stenographers to the White House is becoming more and more unacceptable to news organizations,” Carroll said.

    Some Trump supporters see this practice as censorship by networks that want to control what their viewers hear. Curtis Houck of the Media Research Center called the outlets “hypocrites” for complaining about the lack of briefings but not airing them live.

    “To be clear, these two liberal cable outlets have long suggested that the President was eroding American press freedoms. But when it came to the news media allowing viewers to decide things for themselves, the former thinks they should be in charge of what the latter sees,” Houck wrote on the Newsbusters blog.

    However, Trump critics say these are necessary steps to take with a president who The Washington Post estimates averaged 15 false statements a day in 2018 and the spokesperson who defends him.

    “I think the news organizations would say they want to present this information in context as opposed to in a format where an administration spokeswoman has free reign to ignore or deflect or mislead in her responses,” Carroll said. “You could say that’s slanting the news in the ideological direction that the news organizations have adopted, but I think, given the track record of bad faith in these press briefings, the news organizations have a right to present them in the way they believe informs the public best.”

    This could be a shift toward treating the Trump administration the same as its recent predecessors, for whom the daily briefing was not must-see TV unless there was major news to report. The practice of regularly airing White House press briefings live, unfiltered, and in their entirety is only about two years old, dating back to original Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s widely-seen and often-mocked initial appearances in the briefing room.

    If the briefings have become such a point of frustration for both sides, some may ask whether the White House should hold them at all or whether reporters should show up for them. According to Carroll, though, there is intrinsic value in the press holding the White House accountable on camera in front of the American people, even when the answers are unsatisfying or misleading.

    “Even if it’s just ten rounds of bobbing and weaving, that in itself says something to the audience,” he said.

    At the very least, the organized briefings are preferable to the alternative often seen over the last several weeks of reporters staking out the Fox News liveshot on the White House lawn to catch Sanders or Kellyanne Conway on their way back into the building.

    “The whole chasing Sarah Sanders around and monitoring Fox News so the press corps can rush to the White House driveway to try to pepper her with questions, that’s a discouraging development,” Carroll said. “Because it turns what should be some kind of reasonable back and forth into this scramble and this game of hide-and-seek that doesn’t really convey anything coherent to the American public.”

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