Professor: Press briefing blackouts compound tensions between media, White House

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks as cameras are pointed away during an off-camera media briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, June 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

White House press briefings under the Trump administration frequently make headlines for the way they’re run—see Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live impression of Press Secretary Sean Spicer as one example. But this month, it’s been the very fact that those briefings have been occasionally blocked from public view that’s made news.

Several times this month, the White House barred television cameras and other audio and visual recordings from the daily press briefings, something that has drawn the ire of several journalists, news outlets, and press organizations, including CNN’s Jim Acosta and the White House Correspondents’ Association.

We’re watching the most unusual presidency of our lifetime, and I do think it’s important to try to separate out what’s really important from what isn’t.”

Dan Kennedy
Journalism professor

So why doesn’t the press corps push back and film anyway? According to journalism professor and media commentator Dan Kennedy, it’s because they don’t have much footing on which to do so.

“The main reason everyone is going along with this, upset as they may be, is that there’s really nothing they can do,” Kennedy said. “The White House is not bound by any law or anything in the Constitution to have press briefings.”

And while the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, “it doesn’t say that people in the government have to do anything to make it easier for the press,” he added.

Indeed, televised White House press briefings only began during the Clinton administration, Kennedy said, and even then they were occasionally turned off.

Historically, press briefings would likely have been fairly boring to watch anyway. “Before they became a TV show, these briefings were just about scheduling, setting up logistics, answering a few questions, things like that,” Kennedy said. It’s only more recently that they’d become must-see TV.

Still, the decision to block filming only compounds bigger existing issues between the White House and the press, Kennedy said.

“If this were happening in a vacuum, I could almost understand the argument that these daily White House press briefings have become too big a deal, and that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tone it down a little bit,” he said. “But given all the other problems President Donald Trump has presented to the media, it’s natural that we would react to every single thing that adds to it.”

The occasional blackout of a press briefing is nothing compared to Trump’s comments about changing libel laws or imprisoning reporters who publish leaked information, or the fact that he’s only held one solo news conference since becoming president, Kennedy said.

“We’re watching the most unusual presidency of our lifetime, and I do think it’s important to try to separate out what’s really important from what isn’t,” Kennedy said.