When Donald Trump takes the oath of office and becomes President on January 20, 2017, his arrival at the White House could bring about some changes in how an administration deals with the press corps, as many Trump supporters argue that it's time to push back against what they feel is a group of Washington, D.C. reporters who are basically an opposition party.
"They are so dishonest," Mr. Trump likes to say of the press at his post-election rallies, clearly enjoying the moment as the crowd boos and insults rain down on those inside the press pen.
What kind of changes could we see at the White House for the news media?
1. Will the daily press briefing change? I have been around long enough to remember going to the White House for briefings in the Reagan Administration, back when only the first five minutes could be televised or recorded for radio. After that, the microphone was turned off in the briefing room, the television lights went dark, but the Q&A session continued to be on the record between reporters and Reagan's spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. When Bill Clinton arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1993, things changed, as Press Secretary George Stephanopoulos was the face of daily briefings, which were often televised live, and in their entirety. So, just as the press briefings took on more daily importance in the past, it is possible Trump could devalue them in the future. "There's a lot of different ways that things can be done," said Reince Priebus, who will be the Trump White House Chief of Staff, when asked about the options for further change in 2017. "I can assure you we're looking at that."
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2. What about the seating chart inside the briefing room? For some critics of the news media, now is a great time for the Trump White House to allow alternative news organizations to get a prominent seat inside the White House briefing room. Those seats have been doled out for almost two decades not by the President's Administration, but by the reporters who cover the White House. Their group is known as the White House Correspondents Association; they also rule on which organizations should get White House press credentials. (Note: we have a similar setup in the U.S. Capitol, where the reporters in the different press galleries assign work space and determine who is eligible to get a press pass. I have been elected to the Radio-TV board, and participated in those decisions as well.) Could a Trump White House do something different? Sure they could - and judging from what I hear from listeners and readers about the press - I'm not sure most of America would be worried about it.
3. What about restricting reporters at the White House? Could a Trump White House block certain reporters from coming to the White House? We have seen the Trump campaign blackball specific reporters, and not allow them to cover Trump campaign events. That policy was eased the closer we got to the election, but it's fresh in the mind of many reporters in DC. As a reporter, you can get into the White House without having an official White House press ID, which is known as a "hard pass” - having a "hard pass" though makes it much easier to cover events there. When I first started as a reporter, the Secret Service refused to give me a press ID, citing some kind of red flag in my background, which they would not reveal. A few years later, they changed their mind, and I got a White House pass. But after the Nine Eleven attacks, the Secret Service moved to tighten the number of hard passes available, favoring those who covered the White House on a daily basis, and I finally lost that guaranteed access. So, reporters can certainly be restricted.
4. The evolving nature of dealing with the press. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a President Trump might do things differently in terms of the press corps. You could bring in more publications that give favorable coverage. You can limit news media access to the President. You can change the coverage rules inside the White House, just because you run the show. You can also go over the head of the news media and get your message out that way. When talking about the military, people often wonder if the generals are "fighting the last war” – and that could apply to the press as well. As Donald Trump gets ready to enter the White House, reporters must adapt - but right now, we don't really know how the rules may or may not change in terms of covering a President Trump.
5. Whither the Trump news conferences? The last time Donald Trump held a news conference, or even a gaggle (press availability) with campaign reporters was July 27 - five months ago. While reporters might think that is the wrong strategy, I'm not sure it's going to change that much with a President Trump, who clearly enjoys holding campaign-style rallies, rather than taking the queries of a press corps that he considers to be filled with people who are not on his team. Again - for his supporters, that's a great strategy. Mr. Trump has taken a few questions here and there from reporters staking out his meetings with candidates for top administration jobs, and he did visit with reporters following him for a holiday party a week before Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida - so it's not like he totally detests the press - but he's clearly more at home on Twitter and with certain interviewers. And again – I don’t think a lot of people really care what he does.
6. My advice to fellow reporters - get ready for flak. As I mentioned above, one thing that has been driven home to me repeatedly by my listeners and readers is that most of America thinks we are a bunch of sniveling idiots in the press corps. I have often observed to people that, if you have not been a reporter, it's hard to understand why certain procedures matter to us. My advice to others in the news media about Trump is pretty basic - if we publicly complain about anything, then get ready for a tidal wave of barbs being aimed at you on social media. Recently at a Trump post-election rally, someone ran up to the press pen afterward, and threw a bottle of water at a CNN reporter. My observation that this action was troubling was mocked by some of my Twitter followers. Fellow reporters, get ready for more of that.
7. Look for Democrats to get more aggressive with the press. A lot of Republicans probably don't remember the barbs that Democrats threw at the press during the George W. Bush Administration, as we were often accused of being 'stenographers,' of not asking enough tough questions, and generally going along with Mr. Bush on Iraq and more. (That sort of echoes some of the complaints that Republicans had about us during the Obama Administration.) Now that we are moving into the Trump Years, the Democrats are already on the attack. "New motto for American journalism in 2016: Take what Trump offers and like it," said Adam Jentleson, the spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). It's a reminder that both sides think they hold the keys to Absolute Truth, and that if the press isn't on board with them, then the news media must be biased, dumb, or both.
8. One change that I hope gets done away with. When Donald Trump has a news conference at the White House, maybe we will be finished with one change that was made by President Obama for those gatherings. Before the news conference, Mr. Obama's team would formulate a list of reporters for the President to call upon by name. Those reporters would be notified ahead of time that they might get called on, so they could have their question ready. It always struck me as odd, and just seemed to feed conspiracy theories that the press was in the palm of the President. In 2016, one reporter from the Washington Post - who was not on the advance list - tried to get Mr. Obama to answer a question about illegal immigration. The President was not happy. “I appreciate you shouting out a question, since I’m sure there are a lot of colleagues of yours who would like to do the same,” Mr. Obama said in a somewhat snarky tone.
9. Trump and Twitter. I find it sort of hard to believe that once Donald Trump becomes President, that he will suddenly stop tweeting. During the campaign, and definitely during the transition, it has proven to be a very useful – and loud – weapon for him. So, why would he stop once he takes office? Sometimes the Trump tweets stir up real news. Other times they just sort of wash away. But they can certainly give us a window into what he is thinking in real time, and I would argue that a tweet is not that much different than if he walked out to the briefing room podium and said the same thing to the TV cameras.
Think of it this way - whenever you get a new boss in the office, some things change. At times it is for the good, sometimes it isn't.
We will get to watch the Trump team up close over the next few years to see just how much “new” there is at the White House when it comes to dealing with the press, and how much of it really works.