He could not have been thrilled with the cable news reviews, captured in the Axios and CNN “Reliable Sources” newsletters: “yawning credibility gap” (the former Obama White House press secretary Josh Earnest, Democrat); “systemic, nonstop lying” (the former McCain presidential campaign manager Steve Schmidt, Republican); and “I was never sent out to lie — if I had, I would have quit” (the former Bush White House communications adviser Nicolle Wallace, Republican).
During the White House briefings that followed Mr. Comey’s ouster on Tuesday, verifiably accurate information was hard to come by and confusion reigned. Mr. Trump’s deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, laid out a sequence of events that unraveled like any seam I’ve ever tried to resew.
The first version of events was crystal clear: “It’s real simple here,” Ms. Sanders said on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. People at the Justice Department, including the “deputy attorney general, a guy who has a stellar reputation,” she said, had “made a strong recommendation, the president followed it.”
The deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein — a 27-year Justice Department veteran with a large supply of bipartisan credibility — initiated the firing along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Ms. Sanders asserted. She said the same thing during the White House press briefing that afternoon.
Then came the reports that Mr. Rosenstein did not initiate the firing; in fact, a memo he wrote criticizing Mr. Comey warned that a decision to remove the director “should not be taken lightly.”
If the memo didn’t undercut Ms. Huckabee’s version of events, the president’s own words did in his interview with Lester Holt of NBC News on Thursday: “I was going to fire Comey — my decision.”
The daily briefing is a way for the White House to communicate to the public via the news media. That the White House couldn’t get its story (or stories) straight about something as important as the firing of the F.B.I. director, during an investigation into ties between the president’s campaign and a foreign power reportedly trying to sway a United States presidential election, once again breaks the mold of what’s “normal” in United States governance.
Yes, we’re in a time of deep partisan divide, and that includes, very centrally, the news media. A Pew research report this week showed that 89 percent of Democrats say that the news media plays an important watchdog role with top government leaders while only about 42 percent of Republicans say the same.
That divide should never extend to the reliability of information put forth by the United States government. But the seeds of this week’s informational disarray have been there since the start: The very first words to come from the White House briefing room under this administration — over the size of the inauguration crowd — were false. This time the subject was far more important.
On Friday morning, President Trump appeared to defend his press team, and his own credibility, with a lowering of the bar for accuracy. “As a very active President with lots of things happening,” he wrote amid his stream of Twitter posts, “it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”
It was an acknowledgment that he would not expect or demand precision from the people he puts forward to represent not only him, but also the country he leads. He has given his press team a “say anything” hall pass.
The daily White House briefings have always been used to put the president’s decisions in the best light. But that’s typically done with verifiable facts that stand no matter how hard every White House works to treat them like Silly Putty. Once a president drops even the pretense of accuracy, what’s the point?
The question is especially important for cable news, which should certainly think twice — or thrice — about airing the briefings before their content can be verified.
As a former White House correspondent for this newspaper, I spent plenty of time in the briefing room during the presidency of George W. Bush. We had our rows, and there was plenty of spin and huge disagreements — it was, after all, the era of weapons of mass destruction that were not found.
But there was no regular credibility gap like the present one. As the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen put it, we’re at the point where there is no single White House voice to be counted upon; the term “the White House says” has lost its meaning.
The briefing room was never where the real reporting on an administration happened, so it’s not central to a White House reporter’s job. It has typically been more about providing mood music, taking the president’s temperature and bringing the White House line of the day to the country and the world. That said, I can’t imagine that any White House correspondent would be happy with a decision to end the briefings.
According to a statement on Friday from Jeff Mason, the White House Correspondents’ Association president, they wouldn’t be.
“Doing away with briefings would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned,” it read in part.
And that makes sense. As a rule, reporters want more transparency from any White House, and regular access to the most basic information they’ve traditionally picked up in the daily White House briefings.
But if the people giving the briefings no longer produce reliable information about the most important matters of state — let alone the most trivial — what will reporters really be losing if those briefings go away?
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