How Trump wins press conferences

How Trump wins press conferences

Yeah. “Here we go.” “Let’s go, let’s go, come on.” “If you don’t mind, Mr. President, that this caravan wasn’t an invasion.” Get him, Jim.
Hit him with the truth. “Caravan was not an invasion, it’s a group of migrants.” “I consider it an invasion you and I have a difference of opinion.” Oh snap, you gonna let that slide Jim? “Think you should let me run the country, you run CNN. If you did it well, your ratings would be much better.” Ohhhh hell yeah — Okay, look. I know I should . be rooting for Jim Acosta here, the brave
journalists sticking it to the man asking tough questions day after day — “The president of the United States should not refer to us as ‘the enemy of the people.’ ” — but to be honest these press conferences feel kind of performative, like I’m
watching professional wrestling or something. You’ve got your villains — “Our very great President Donald J. Trump .” “Hello, everybody.” — you’ve got your trash-talking: “He made a joke, maybe
you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime.” And you got your fighting — “I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news.” So much fighting. [Numerous agitated exchanges] News networks have become obsessed with
these press conferences, airing them live like title fights in the middle of the
day. “Now all eyes are on the press briefing. We have Sarah Sanders starting
to speak now. Oh, do we? Okay, perfect.” And recapping them once the chaos is over. “Okay so that
wraps up what is fair to say an epic briefing. We’ve got a whole team of
reporters and panelists that are ready to get to it with you.” Don’t get me wrong,
it’s a lot of fun to watch. I have Jim Acosta’s face tattooed on my butt just
like everyone else, but I can’t remember the last time I learned something from
one of these. “Can you give us a question?” “I am not going to give you a question.” “You are fake news.” And it’s got me wondering: do we care
about these things because they’re important or because they put on a
really good? “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome: Donald Trump!” I could do this video in a typical
boring Strikethrough format, but this episode is about spectacles goddamnit so
we’re gonna put on a freaking show and by that I mean a no-holds-barred cage
match between two experts who’ve done a lot of thinking about this issue. In one corner, the academic: NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen AKA Jackhammer Jay. Nobody calls me that. In the other corner, the veteran former White House
reporter for The Associated Press, Jennifer Loven AKA The Heartbreaker. I don’t think I can do it. The debate: has the White House press briefings become a spectacle? Jay, you’re up
first. Well the briefing has always been problematic since television came to it.
The presence of the cameras means that there’s a temptation towards
self-dramatization and theatrical confrontation sort of for its own sake. A brutal opening statements, let’s see how Loven deals with that: I would disagree
with the notion that it’s that much more of a spectacle now than it used to be. Wait what? It is a show and it’s a show for the White House and it’s a show for
the reporters who are sitting in the room. No, it’s not a double-kill they’re
basically agreeing with each other. Goddamn it you guys. Okay, forget the cage
match thing. DOMINA — I said forget it. So it turns out, nobody really loves the White House
press conferences. The White House hates them because they have to answer tough
questions from reporters “Are you worried at all that you’ve lost control of the process on how this bill’s received?” And reporters hate them because the White House does
everything in its power to avoid answering those questions. “I don’t have an update for you.” “I don’t have any information with which to answer that
question.” “I appreciate the invitation to get involved in here, but I’m not gonna RSVP.” They bring out random guests to stall for time, “I have two special guests
talk to you about a new ruling on labels for cigarettes.” They punt questions to
other agencies. “I’d refer you to the State Department on that.” “I’d refer you to HHS.” “I will refer you to the Postal Service.” You never really get the big gotcha
moments you’re hoping for. The whole thing is like pulling teeth. Every administration uses not only the briefing, but every tool at their disposal to go
around the media. So the briefing is really no different. Trying to get
information from a White House that doesn’t want to give it to you unless
they want to give it to you. These press events became even more of a
spectacle after Eisenhower introduced
cameras in 1955. “Motion picture cameras join newspaper reporters for an historic
presidential press conference.” Once everyone could watch these things on TV, it became much more about putting on a good show. “I see we’re trying a new experiment
this morning. I hope it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.” It did. So if nobody’s really getting what they want out of these press conferences, why
do we pay so much attention to them? Why air them on TV at all? Rosen has a theory. One way we could look at the White House briefing is that it’s much more of a
ritual act of communication, than it is transmitting information. Rituals like
the White House press conference are intended to show that there is some
accountability there, that the president has to answer questions, respond to doubts. And this is one way in which American power legitimates itself and in
democratic system. You can’t really see it here, but my brain lit up when he said
that because that ritual theory, it kind of makes everything click. And in ritual, you’re not trying to move information. Instead, you reaffirm values, you
advertise the community what it believes in. We don’t care about the press
conference because it’s important, it’s important because we care about it. Because
they affirm this idea that the government has to answer to the public. The ideal of the briefing is that you have this operation in which you get a
chance to ask questions of people who run the most powerful office in the
world. That is accountability and that is important, even if the execution isn’t
perfect. Which is why we pay so much attention when the White House clashes
with reporters. “What was it like inside that very tense briefing room today?” To those of us at home it looks like accountability. “Why were you holding back
this information? This is directly relevant. Why did you hold it back?” The term that journalists had for this is “sparring,” they loved the idea of sparring
with the officeholder. They’re showing how they are the Accountability Police, which is a fascinating image because it suggests boxing, but it’s
really boxing when you’re practicing, it’s like play-acting in a way. Kind of like wrestling? Which brings us back to this: “That’s enough. That’s enough. That’s. Enough.” The thing about symbolic rituals like this is they only work if everyone agrees
they’re important. If both sides can respect each other enough to keep the
ritual going. If a professional wrestler starts trying to actually murder their
opponent in the ring, the whole ritual falls apart. The same is true for these
press conferences. Journalists don’t like to talk about this, but there’s always
been a necessary level of cooperation. Person in power has to agree that is
important to hold me to account. Trump doesn’t agree with that. “I called the fake
news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people.” His political strategy is built on attacking the press as illegitimate and dangerous,
but instead of abandoning the press conference altogether,
Trump has transformed it into a platform for staging high profile fights with the
press. “You’re very rude person. The way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible.” Now the ritual has turned into a ritual of hate. The press has become a hate object and the
briefing actually assists in that. For Trump, the point of the ritual isn’t
accountability, it’s to create an enemy. To give viewers at home a visual of a
bad guy to root against. “See when you talk about division, it’s people like
this that cause division. Great division.” From a PR standpoint it’s a great
strategy. Trump can attack the media on Twitter all day, but these press
conferences turn that anger into a real visceral image, one that gets looped on
TV screens across the country. “We also have highlights from the president’s
smackdown of CNN’s Jim Acosta.” “The president smacking down mainstream media
for fake news.” “They’re very fake news. That’s right.” I’m a hundred percent sure he relishes the
back-and-forth and understands that with a certain segment of his base, it helps
him. Trump has taken other steps to make these press conferences as dramatic as
possible. The White House is having fewer press briefings now than it used to.
These lines represent the number of press briefings Obama and Bush held
while in office and this little guy down here is Trump. Which means when the White
House does have a press conference, Trump knows everyone is watching. “It’s very good to have you here, because a free press —” “I do too. Actually I do too.” “It’s called ‘earned media.’ It’s worth billions, go ahead.” These briefings are getting shorter too. The average White House Q&A is
now well under 20 minutes, which forces reporters to fight dramatically for
questions before time runs out. [Various reporters struggling to ask questions] is a staple of Hollywood movies and television shows. When you have these confrontations, it
helps him cement his support with his core supporters. “Did you see the insane
grandstanding and the White House press briefing today? He was badgered by some
members of the national left-wing media. I don’t know how you do your job.” Important understand that in symbolic politics, people not only identify with
the leader, but they identify against the opponent. [Crowd chanting “CNN sucks.”] Which explains why, despite
hating CNN, Trump and Sanders keep calling on Acosta press conference after
press conference. They know he’ll put on a good show. “Should I let him have a little bit more? What do you think, Peter?” And the
genius of Trump strategy is it’s really tempting to play along. For one, news
network’s benefit from the spectacle too. If you’re not a trump supporter, these
press conferences still look like a fight between a good guy and a bad guy,
just with the roles reversed. From the journalist’s side, theater works by
portraying a heroic battler for truth who says “answer my question, you didn’t
answer the question” “President, will you stop calling us the enemy of the people, sir?” “Will you stop calling the press the ‘enemy of the people,’ sir?” And that image is also
deeply ingrained in American culture. Which is why CNN keeps sending Acosta
of these things and fixating on the White House’s reaction. It’s good PR. “Well, Jake when they go low we keep doing our jobs.” “That is our job, to ask these
questions. We here at CNN keep doing our job the president should start doing his.” But more than that, it feels good watching people yell at Trump and
Sanders when they lie. It’s cathartic because we want to believe the ritual
still works, that the president can still be publicly shamed into telling the
truth. But can he? I think the most important yardstick we can use to
discover whether these events are still worth it or not is, is the
president actually held accountable for anything? Is he being more disciplined by the confrontation with the facts that
journalists are trying to state? If there’s one thing we can say about the
Trump administration, is that this sort of accountability to fact has completely
failed. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the press conference altogether.
There’s a ton of useful information reporters get out of these things when
they’re not in WWE mode. I mean, I get that it feels like a spectacle when you
see the tense parts of it, but there’s a lot of really prosaic day-to-day
information gathering that has to happen on that beat. “What is the US stance on Venezuela at this point?” “What will be executive order
that’s coming out this afternoon?” “Is the president planning on pardoning Paul Manafort?” Trying to gather a lot of, really, just logistical information about what is going to happen here in this building so we can be prepared to cover it properly. But we should ask if watching reporters and Trump scream at each other is
actually that valuable anymore. “We are awaiting the start of the White House
press briefing and it should be quite a show.” If it’s worth giving Trump the
title fight he’s looking for. “I love this, I’m having a good time doing it. The public gets it, you know. When I go to rallies, they turn around they start
screaming at CNN.” We can’t make Trump care about the symbolic value of press conferences, but what we can do is avoid treating these things like a high-stakes
struggle between a hero and a villain. After all, nothing deflates a wrestling
match more than one side refusing to take the bait. It’s boring, it ruins the spectacle. And right
now, that might be our best option. Thanks for watching we launched a paid
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