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To air or not to air White House press briefings? That is the question.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on July 27 said White House staffers “are here because they love the president, they love this country.” (U.S. Senate)

Journalists advocated for the White House to lift a ban on live broadcasts of press briefings. Would they really turn away the cameras, now that the ability to film has been restored?

It sounds silly to even pose the question, but television networks could face tough judgment calls if the White House continues to follow the infomercial model on display early in the Sanders-Scaramucci era.

After newly installed White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci tweeted Monday that “the TV cameras are back on,” incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders devoted the first six minutes of Wednesday’s briefing — a quarter of the total time — to topics other than news of the day. At one point, she read fan mail sent to President Trump by a 9-year-old named Dylan.

Then, on Thursday, after Scaramucci thrust White House infighting into public view, Sanders had Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert Hur and acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan open the briefing. She then sought to minimize follow-ups by proclaiming the day “one-question Thursday.”

TV networks opposed filming prohibitions, which were increasingly common before last week’s staff shake-up at the White House, because they are in the business of televising news events. But what do they do when a news conference — or part of it, anyway — lacks news? Do they surrender their airtime to the White House’s agenda? Broadcast only the question-and-answer portion? Ditch the whole thing?

I asked programming executives at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC how they are weighing coverage decisions. None offered insights; they either did not respond to questions or referred me to spokesmen who declined to comment. In a telling moment, a representative of one network called to ask if other networks had told me their plans.

It appears that cable news bosses are unsure what to do — and are monitoring the competition closely.

The dilemma is not entirely new. In what was a rare move at the time, the White House permitted live broadcasting of a briefing on June 29, the day that Trump tweeted a sexist attack on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and also insulted her co-host, Joe Scarborough. Before answering questions about the president’s remarks, however, Sanders turned over the first half of the briefing to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

CNN carried Mnuchin in full, but Fox News and MSNBC cut in and out. Even when Sanders returned to the podium to deliver a prepared statement, MSNBC stayed with a report on the latest news about Trump’s travel ban before joining the briefing in time to air her answers to reporters’ questions.

On days when the White House has barred TV cameras, CNN has routinely cut Sanders’s prepared statements from the audio recordings it airs on delay, broadcasting only the Q&As.

The White House pays attention to these things. At an off-camera briefing last month, Sanders complained that on prior occasions when Cabinet secretaries delivered on-camera remarks at the beginning of briefings, “multiple networks didn’t cover those openings.” She suggested that networks had diminished standing to protest the off-camera format if they were not committed to airing entire briefings when given the chance.

This is one reason that coverage decisions are so delicate now. After banning cameras for three straight weeks earlier this month, the White House seems to be betting that networks will feel obligated to air briefings from start to finish, including whatever Trump hagiographies Sanders chooses to include.

The implied argument goes like this: Cable news channels wanted permission to broadcast live, right? They better show everything. Otherwise, their biases will be exposed.


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