2017-05-12 14:55:02
Mediator: White House Press Briefings: Some Degree of Accuracy Required

So the threat we have been waiting for — girding for — has finally arrived from the presidential level.

“Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???” President Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday morning.

It may be an idea whose time has come — at least until there is a move toward some semblance of truth and accuracy at the White House press secretary’s lectern, not to mention at the White House itself.

The president’s threat almost certainly came in response to the assessments of his White House press team’s performance after his abrupt firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey.

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 departure, verifiably accurate information was hard to come by; the sequence of events his deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, laid out 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 career 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, adding that “the rank and file” at the F.B.I. had “lost confidence” in Mr. Comey, as well.

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 oust the director “should not be taken lightly.”

If the memo didn’t prove Ms. Huckabee’s version of events to be deeply flawed, the president’s own words did in his interview with Lester Holt on Thursday: “I was going to fire Comey — my decision.”

That the White House misled the public — via its communications to the news media — over 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 the United States’ election, would ordinarily be beyond shocking. It is, and should be seen as such.

But the challenge is understandable if you rewind the clock to the inauguration, and remember that the very first words to come from the White House briefing room under this administration were false. That time, with the press secretary, Sean Spicer, at the lectern, it involved something as trifling as the size of the president’s inauguration crowd. Predictions that this was a horrible sign of things to come, that falsehoods involving far more important matters would follow, have proved all-too correct.

On Friday morning, President Trump appeared to defend his press team, and his own White House’s credibility, with an unusual lowering of the bar on truth and accuracy in the executive branch. “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 outright declaration that he would not expect or demand accuracy from the people he puts forward to represent not only him, but also the United States of America. He has given his press team a “say anything” hall pass.

Which brings me to this: Sure, the daily White House briefings have always been used to put the president’s decisions in the best light. But it’s hopefully done with verifiable facts that stand no matter how hard a White House tries to treat them like Silly Putty. Once a president drops even the pretense of accuracy, what’s the point?

The question’s especially important for cable news, which should certainly think twice — or, at this point, thrice — about airing the briefings live before their content can be analyzed for truth and accuracy.

As a former White House correspondent for this newspaper, I’ve spent plenty of time in that room, during the presidency of George W. Bush. We had our rows, and there was plenty of spin and huge disagreements — this was, after all, the era of weapons of mass destruction that were not found.

But there was no credibility gap like the one we’re seeing now. This one borders on crisis (As the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has put it, we’re at the point where there is no single White House voice to be counted upon; that the term “the White House says” has lost its meaning).

The briefing room was never where the real reporting on the White House came from, so it’s not central to a reporter’s job. It has been more about mood music, and taking the president’s temperature, bringing the basic White House line of the day and its message to the country and the world. That said, I can’t imagine that any White House correspondent would be happy with a White House decision to end the briefings.

And, according to a statement from the White House Correspondents’ Association president, Jeff Mason, on Friday morning, 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.

All I’m saying is, if things stay the way they are, what will they really be losing?