Diminishing or eliminating the daily White House Press Briefing is a big mistake.
In my childhood hometown, the longtime daily newspaper sits along one side of a wide open space that has been the home to civic protest, celebrations, food festivals and relaxed family picnics. Along another side of the town square sits another building of equal architectural and community significance, City Hall.
The physical proximity of the newspaper and the seat of local government makes the greenspace a gathering point, a place where people from around the community exercise their First Amendment rights. The resulting civic-mindedness helps define the community.
Power, accountability and the public should always intermingle. Sadly, we are losing these spaces. A sidewalk popular with tourists is shut in the name of securing the president. Presidential debates used to be coordinated by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan entity whose goal was to ensure a platform where voters could hear from candidates on the most pressing questions of the day. Today, arrangements for joint debates, forums and other appearances are negotiated with the major political parties.
We are closing down more physical spaces in the name of security. The Secret Service closed off the sidewalk running along the southern perimeter of the White House because a broad lawn and a tall fence aren’t enough to prevent fence jumpers from repeatedly reaching the White House building itself. This step may seem necessary to protect the president if not for the reporting of The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, who through anonymous sources and the Freedom of Information Act documented the Secret Service’s inadequacies. With enough space to land the president’s helicopter between the White House and the fence, there’s surely enough room to improve the Secret Service’s performance without making the public suffer. But the sidewalk is still closed.
For the same reason, having journalists working inside the White House helps ensure our political leaders and federal agencies are responding to the public and making decisions that they can defend publicly, on the record, every day.
The daily press briefing has its clear shortcomings. Televising briefings makes them more contentious, so the argument goes. The White House has floated making changes, such as mixing on-camera briefings with off-camera briefings or having less frequent briefings.
The White House Press Briefing should continue to evolve. Here are a few practices that could improve the experience for all.
First, commit to a daily press briefing. Require daily press briefings of all cabinet departments. Explaining oneself on a daily basis focuses the mind when faced with hard choices and encourages senior leaders to make those decisions that they can more easily defend publicly.
Second, ensure briefers come prepared. That requires the government experts in agencies to prepare responses the public may want to know about a range of government activities or reactions to current events. The mere exercise of government officials preparing public responses to major events has a salutary effect.
Third, consider your commitment — and the reporter’s commitment — to public service. Explaining oneself to the public on a daily basis may be fraught with problems, but it is part of our American experience and is a tangible way of showing the world that American takes its ideals seriously.
Finally, work with the daily reporters to figure out what they need and provide it on a daily basis.
While some may scoff at the idea this White House would adopt this approach, others in government could follow through and speak up for a commonsense way of dealing with their obligations to answering tough questions on matters of public importance. American democracy may depend on it.
Photo credit: Photograph of President Reagan motioning to Ed Meese during a White House Press Briefing on Iran-Contra, National Archives and Records Administration. NARA Locator 198579. Available at: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/198579.