A Week with the White House Press Corps Inside Trump's War on the Traditional Media
Part 2: Discrediting and Obstructing the Mainstream Media
Mike McCurry didn't have such problems. His boss Bill Clinton preferred playing basketball over watching the press conferences, he says. McCurry is sitting at the bar of the National Press Club in Washington and asks if it's too early for a martini. It's 11 a.m. His shirt is unbuttoned and he exudes the same kind of coolness his former boss possessed. McCurry was Clinton's spokesman during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
McCurry says he has sympathy for his successor Spicer, for example when he was forced to lie about the size of the crowd attending the inauguration ceremony. "He made that claim for a single person," says McCurry, "the president himself."
McCurry knows how it feels for a spokesperson when their boss is lying. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." When he quotes those famous words, he mimes the former president's expression and runs his pointer finger through the air the way Clinton did on television at the time. "It's a very unhappy memory," McCurry says. "Bill's statement, as you know, turned out not to be 100 percent accurate." In contrast to Trump, however, who has yet to apologize for anything, Clinton did provide one -- to McCurry and to 275 million Americans.
Plus, with Trump lies tend to be the rule rather than the exception. He has said he won the most Electoral College votes since Ronald Reagan, even though three other presidents since then have received more. Then he claims that more than 3 million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
McCurry says that, through his office, the president of the United States has the loudest voice in the world and that nobody can attract more attention. And if that voice is constantly used to spread lies, then it constitutes an attack on the truth.
Before Trump, every president accepted that the press plays an important role in the country's democracy. That it is the media's job to scrutinize the government in power and to challenge it. McCurry says Clinton used to get very upset by reports, but he never admitted as much in public, and that's the difference.
McCurry believes that Trump would like to curtail press freedom. "If he could issue an order that the only coverage allowed of him was positive, he would do so without delay."
The New Right Media
For the moment, Trump and Spicer have chosen a different path. They are instead seeking to discredit and obstruct traditional media outlets while at the same time providing support to nascent right-wing media that are sympathetic to their cause.
Among the winners in this new age is Jennifer Wishon. She's sitting in the basement in the area of the West Wing where correspondents do their work. Journalists here have always been provided with conditions that are about as comfortable as the pens on a chicken farm, but Wishon has been a bit luckier than others -- she's been provided with a relatively large cubbyhole of about 17 square feet and even has a door to cut off the bustle. It's big enough for a small desk, a chair and Wishon.
Wishon works for the Christian Broadcasting Network, which is largely viewed by evangelical Christians who count among Trump's biggest supporters. She apologizes for her shortness of breath and points to her belly, saying she's pregnant. Then she points to the black curtain in front of the window on the door. Her office, she says, is now called the "Breast Wing" because she has invited female colleagues to pump milk here in peace.
During the Obama years, Wishon sat in the last row of the Briefing Room and almost never got picked for questions. Since Trump has been in office, she has been able to ask questions almost every day. During Spicer's first press briefing, she even got to ask the second question. And during Trump's press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, her colleague got to ask one of the two questions journalists were able to pose. Then the president gave the broadcaster one of two exclusive interviews he granted. "There are many firsts for us now," Wishon says. "The difference is like day and night. It's wonderful for us."
It used to be that the first question almost always went to a news wire -- first The Associated Press, then Reuters and then came the major TV stations because they had the most viewers. But this old order has been turned on its head. Wishon says that when Trump describes the media as the enemy of the people, he is saying what conservative America has been thinking for an eternity. After all, the liberal media supports abortion, gay marriage and restrooms for transsexuals.
Wishon is perhaps the most candid among those profiting from this new era. Odder are all the young men and women in dashing suits and tight outfits who have been placing themselves in strategic spots in the Briefing Room in order to catch Spicer's attention. He derives great pleasure in overlooking the established media and instead calling on newer organizations that no one had even heard of a short time ago and who are more than happy to ask non-threatening questions.
'That's What I Call a Nice Question'
At Trump's first press conference, he called on a 19-year-old admirer who had recently established his own internet channel. His question was about the first lady. "Mr. President," he said, "Melania Trump announced the reopening of the White House Visitors Office. And she does a lot of great work for the country as well. Can you tell us a little bit about what first lady Melania Trump does for the country?"
"Now, that's what I call a nice question," he answered. "That is very -- who are you with?"
"UNF news," the 19-year-old answered.
"Good," the president said. "I'm going to start watching, all right?" He then went on to explain in-depth just how magnificent his wife is for the country.
Twenty-three-year-old Trey Yingst of the One American News Network is among the most eager beavers in the room. He can often be seen nodding along as Spicer speaks and he is the first to raise his hand when Spicer finishes his statements. The company he works for began broadcasting three years ago as an alternative to Fox News that is even further to the right.
On this particular Wednesday, Yingst is congratulated by his colleagues at Breitbart News because he got to ask two questions during the previous day's briefing. "Yeah, it's great," he says. "I hope i can keep up the momentum." Right after asking a harmless question, he immediately checks the two smart phones he has placed in front of him to see the response on Facebook and Twitter.
Trolling the Old Media
The new right-wing media like One America, Newsmax, the Daily Caller or LifeZette are enjoying the full support of the current administration. Indeed, they are being used to unsettle the old media, to take question time away from them, to disrupt the usual procedures and to challenge the old system. The idea is to call into question the credibility of the experienced, independent and reporting-intensive publishers and broadcasters and to deny their legitimacy.
The defining medium of the new right is Breitbart News, whose former CEO Stephen Bannon now sits in the Oval Office as the White House's chief strategist. Bannon had spent years yearning for this new era and he personally pushed for these new media groups to be provided with access to the White House Press Corps.
On Friday, before the beginning of the briefing, a loud argument erupts. Jon Decker, an experienced radio correspondent for Fox News Radio, which in the era of Trump almost seems like the established media, complains loudly about the presence of Lucian Wintrich, a 28-year-old who is supposed to represent the right-wing radical blog Gateway Pundit at the White House. Gateway Pundit is notorious for its crude conspiracy theories and headlines like, "Dental Expert: Hillary Clinton Is Suffering from Serious Gum Infection and Immune Disorder." The Trump administration was the first to provide the blog with White House accreditation and Wintrich had never before worked as a journalist.
Decker calls out loudly that the reporter, Wintrich, was from a medium that "hates blacks, Jews and Hispanics." He's stunned that Trump's White House actually allow this poser journalist in. Many colleagues pat him on the shoulder in thanks.
A reporter from the New Yorker was recently able to observe how Wintrich and his boss Jim Hoft prepared for the first appearance in the press corps and what questions he might ask. "Just make sure it has 'fake news' in it, Lucian," Hoft said. "Every question you ask with the words 'fake news,' you get a ten-dollar bonus." His main job is not to report about politics -- it's to rile the "liberal mainstream media" and their "ridiculous hypocrisy" or, better yet, to make them look bad.
After the briefing, Wintrich held his own press conference. He stood smoking and wearing sunglasses in front of the door to the Briefing Room and accused the "fake news correspondent" from Fox of having physically attacked and insulted him.
'We're the Fabled Boiling Frog'
"We haven't yet even realized how devastating this corrosive effect will be in the long term," says Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist in his office located not far from the White House. "Trump is attempting to drive journalists crazy so that one day we really will go crazy and he can then turn around and tell his supporters: I told you they are crazy."
With his constant barrage of fresh lies, Trump is gradually altering the country. "We're the fabled boiling frog," says Friedman. Each week Trump turns the temperature up a little higher. At first people don't notice, but at some point the water starts to boil. "And then we're dead." By that, he means journalists. But the metaphor could also be extended to society as a whole.
At the end of the week, Sean Spicer enters the Briefing Room with some exciting news. The new labor market data has come in. On the campaign trail, Trump had constantly dismissed such data as a "hoax." "Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment," Trump had said. "The number is probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even recently heard 42 percent."
But on this day, the news is that the unemployment rate, as had already been the case under the Obama administration, is continuing to shrink. A journalist in the briefing asks if the president actually believes the numbers. "Yeah, I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly," Spicer says jovially. "'They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now.'"
The statement is insolent in the extreme, an intellectual insult. But nobody protested. Maybe you start to get tired if you are attacked day after day. Maybe you simply get used to any system, regardless of how absurd it is. Whatever the case, when Spicer quoted his boss, the Briefing Room erupted in laughter.
- Part 1: Inside Trump's War on the Traditional Media
- Part 2: Discrediting and Obstructing the Mainstream Media