More 'Rules' Sean Spicer Can Change for the Press Pool
As Miami-Dade Mayor proved by abandoning his city’s long-standing status as a Sanctuary City demonstrates, President Trump is a broom that is sweeping clean. He’s dramatically changing how government is “supposed" to work, focusing instead on making government work better for all Americans.
After what some considered a “false start,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer has emulated the President, imposing new procedures on a reluctant, self-focused press corps. Kudos.
This transformation began when Spicer – abandoning tradition – began his very first press Q&A by calling on less well-known reporters, instead of deferring to favored, “front row” media. He then doubled down by stripping the senior-most press corps member’s “right” to close each press briefing. Both of those “press perks” gave the White House press corps real power over these briefings.
That was in fact a great start, but even more is needed to take back control of press briefings.
Spicer is the President’s surrogate. He needs to abandon previous press secretaries’ behavior – many were just far too deferential to the press. That deference closed an open conduit between their Presidents and the American people. So Spicer should keep challenging the press corps’ prerogatives, resetting the ground rules of the game.
Challenge Reporters’ Self-Imposed Privileges:
Reporters set their own agendas, no longer following the Administration’s lead. Right out of the box, Spicer successfully challenged a couple of the most petty “press perks.”
Other press perks remain in force. They have a common denominator – they feed the reporters’ sense of self-importance without improving public dialogue. It’s up to Spicer to follow President Trump’s “disruptive” example. Perks that need to change include:
Move the Briefing Room to the OEOB:
This was mooted by the transition team, but has not yet been adopted. Because of the media’s obsession with Trump, the standing-room-only briefing room now has far more reporters than seats, with many other second-tier White House reporters completely shut out. This crowding justifies moving the briefing room to the Old Executive Office Building – the OEOB. The press pool doesn’t like this idea – but their concerns are based on ego-driven privilege. Americans outside the Beltway would be hard-pressed to care less about where the briefings are held – but they will respond favorably to an honest effort to open the briefings to as many reporters as want to participate.
Eliminate Multiple Questions:
While Spicer has made a good-faith effort to limit follow-on questions, especially when reporters choose to ignore his initial answer and ask the same question again – and again – he needs to go further, if only because of the frequent efforts by reporters to keep pushing for more than one question are one of the most destructive elements of press perks.
To accomplish this, Spicer should tell reporters to, “look around the room – there are far more of you here who want to ask questions than we have time for. So, going forward – and out of respect to both you and your colleagues – I ask that each of you limit yourself to one question.”
When this doesn’t work – and it won’t: Reporters will keep trying to ask multiple questions – Spicer should remind them of his initial request, then tell them: “since trying to motivate you out of professional courtesy isn’t working, going forward, each reporter gets one question – and, if appropriate, one follow-up question on the same topic. Again, out of fairness, I will no longer entertain or respond to multiple questions asked by single reporters.”
Ego-driven reporters won’t take this well, but the American people – who care nothing about reporters and their perks – will respond favorably to Spicer’s essential fairness.
Deal with Repetitive Questions:
Related to reporters’ habit of asking a string of questions on often varied topics is the press corps’ “repetitive question” habit. When several reporters ask a question that’s already been asked – and answered – they hope that Spicer will cave in. They assume that, on the fourth repetition, the press secretary will finally answer what he’d refused to answer on the first three tries. Repeating the same question has often lead to a media feeding frenzy, which helps to explain this habitual media behavior.
However, this can be handled easily, especially once Spicer has already asked reporters to limit themselves to one question. When a reporter repeats an already-answered question, Spicer should say, in effect, “you have just one question today, and since I’ve already answered your question, and since the facts haven’t changed in the last five minutes, are you really sure you want to waste your one question by asking me this same question, and getting my same answer?”
This approach will deliver an immediate benefit. Smart reporters will quickly learn to reconsider wasting their one question. Doing so will limit the risk of elevating a question into an issue, or even into a feeding frenzy.
Challenge Reporters’ Underlying Assumptions:
Spicer should never accept a reporter’s question’s underlying assumption, especially if that assumption reflects hostility toward the President or his agenda. An example of this kind of assumption came up the other day, when a reporter cited the NAACP’s chieftain’s inaccurate charge that President Trump was – by his choice of meetings – stereotyping black Americans. Instead of just pointing out exceptions to this blatantly false assumption – which Spicer did, effectively – he should push back on the underlying assumption itself.
To do this, first challenge the assumption directly. Then provide a single specific example which refutes the assumption. In that kind of case, Spicer could have said, “We reject your question’s underlying assumption. The President has not limited his meetings with prominent black Americans to entertainers and athletes. For instance, the President met with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s eldest son, himself a prominent civil rights leader, and did so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”
This would have demolished both the question and the underlying attack hidden within the question.
The result of following these suggestions would return more control to the Administration, without denying reporters the right to ask a specific question. This will create press briefings that generate more news, and more accurate information for the public by limiting the press corps’ ability to control the process, regardless of its inefficiency.
About Ned Barnett: Barnett has managed – at a state level – media and strategy in three Presidential elections, beginning with Gerald Ford’s South Carolina campaign. He has also managed dozens of political and issues-oriented campaigns. In addition to having trained many political and business clients to more effectively meet the media, he has taught professional communications at several universities and has written more than a dozen published books on effective press relations.