Guess what’s back, with real value: Daily press briefings

Guess what’s back in favor: The recently maligned-by-some institution — the daily White House press briefing.

From the rarified air of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to grim lineups at statehouses, city and town halls, a parade of public officials is holding lengthy, daily briefings, on television and online, in front of journalists who ask questions.

We can all decide whether or not some of the subject matter in those briefings is self-serving political maneuvering, but as the COVID-19 crisis worsens, no one should try to make the case that these sessions are not vital to knowing what our public officials are doing about our health and safety — and perhaps the survival of thousands.

What a difference a relatively few days makes.

On March 11, a now-ironic deadline was reached: One year since an official White House news conference had been held. The decades-old tradition of the briefing had devolved by 2019 into a contest of wills — and often, insults — between a discontented and discounted press corps and an aggressive, pugilistic Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But in recent days, everything old was new again. Reporters asked serious questions and most officials gave serious, detailed responses. Even Trump often refrained from attacking journalists, choosing information — with a positive spin — over confrontation.

In terms of news, the era of the tweet has run up against the need for the deep — for detailed information, from what to do to avoid transmission of the virus to specifics on how medical facilities in your area are or are not prepared for the pandemic’s spread.

Even the now-ubiquitous advice about regular hand washing and 2020’s likely catchphrase, “social distancing,” only gained widespread import when repeated across traditional media outlets.

Social media no doubt has helped individuals remain in touch and access information as the nation slides toward a national lockdown — but it’s not journalists who are relaying the disgusting messages from online hucksters touting cures or wrong-headed advice about the seriousness of the virus’ threat. Note: Not included are pundits who downplayed the crisis even when it was obvious, or pseudo-reporters like Geraldo Rivera, who repeated social media’s mistaken advice that “if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds,” you won’t be infected.

Doubters of the value and worth of a free press have done an all-too effective job in recent years in portraying journalists — particularly in the White House scrum — as self-centered and politically driven elites, rather than in their actual roles as surrogates for all of us, asking the questions we would want to ask if we were there — even the impolite or challenging ones.

Lest anyone think is a lead-in to nominating all reporters for sainthood, let’s note that those White House briefings still feature a press corps where getting in your question is more important than pressing for an answer. When the official at the podium ducks a tough inquiry and moves to recognize others, we need fewer wig-wagging hands and more, “But you didn’t answer that last question.”

Public officials have gained and lost from press briefings through the years.

In the ominous time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John Kennedy — who had already made the first televised briefings into a positive art form — galvanized the nation’s attention with briefings (as well as Oval Office speeches) over the 12 days the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war.

But only a few years later, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration faced the infamous “credibility gap” over news conferences plying information clearly at odds with news reports from Vietnam’s front lines, and in-country military press briefings each evening that became known as the “Five O’clock Follies.”

No doubt some Americans still hold onto the idea that journalists are “enemies of the people.”  Trump, disappointingly, showed signs of reverting to anti-press form with insults abetted by a few fawning, faux journalists amid the briefing participants.

But just watch the morning and evening news (other near anachronisms gaining new life), read the work of real journalists online or in print, or turn to verifiable online sources of valuable information and compare that value to the latest outrageous tweet of conspiracy theory dreamed up to attract web eyeballs (and empty wallets).

For some time, many free press advocates have said the only effective counter to those denigrating its role in our nation’s life — in our democracy — was “doing the work” and doing it well.  So far, journalists at those briefings are doing the work and doing it well.

Turns out, that was exactly the right answer.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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