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“Do you know that there’s a swimming pool underneath the press briefing room?” deputy White House communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) asks in an episode of The West Wing. He’s pushing to banish the press corps out of the White House to the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) across the street.
Press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) tells him, “You can’t exile the press. It sends a signal we’re trying to hide things from them.”
Sam replies, “We are trying to hide things from them.”
That, of course, is the only honest answer to why any administration would want to banish — or dilute, impair, impugn, insult or belittle — the White House press corps.
Before they even entered the White House, the Trump administration floated (swimming pool, remember) the idea of banishing the press corps across the street just as the fictional Sam Seaborn had wanted to. As real Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said, “The current briefing room only has 49 seats, so we have looked at rooms within the White House to conduct briefings that have additional capacity to accommodate members of media including talk radio, bloggers and others.”
It seems the Trump team wants to dilute the current press corps by flooding it with a gaggle of cooperative and supportive “alternative” media outlets of wildly varying degrees of credibility. Having partisan fringe entities like Breitbart and World Net Daily on an equal footing with traditional media outlets blurs the line between news and fake news. We’ve already seen how Trump, after benefiting from faked news stories in the election, now gleefully uses the term himself to disparage real journalistic institutions.
All of that was before Spicer’s infamous “press conference” last weekend, in which he stepped up to the podium, told the press several easily disproven falsehoods — in an attempt to argue that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was not as humiliatingly small as it was — and then left without taking questions. The point was not to fool the press, but to bully them into passing along Trump’s version of events anyway.
Unapologetic lying like this creates the kind of atmosphere where the idea of truth itself becomes nebulous. We don’t merely have conflicting opinions, we have clashing versions of what reality is — “alternative facts,” as Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway described Spicer’s remarks the next day. These are the kinds of conditions that authoritarian states create in order to exert control. In the absence of a consensus on what is right, might reigns supreme. We become subject to the whims of a gaslighter-in-chief.
After seeming to relent on moving the press out of the White House, Trump made some ominous comments appearing to threaten the White House press corps with other tactics: “But some people in the press will not be able to get in. We have so many people that want to go in, so we’ll have to just have to pick the people to go into the room, … and they’ll be begging for a much larger room very soon, you watch.”
The press needs to stand strong in the face of this all-out assault that Trump and his team have launched, against the truth in general and against mainstream journalists in particular. The journalistic community is actively discussing ways in which to fight for the ability to do their jobs. With a cowed, Republican-controlled Congress, the job of the press during the Trump administration is more vital than ever. The myriad conflicts of interests and foreign entanglements of this administration is mind-boggling. The press no longer can follow the old game plan of cozying up to elements within a White House in order to gain access.
To properly inform the public, news organizations will have to be driven less by the business of news and more by the pure calling of journalism. Let’s hope the swimming pool beneath their feet reminds the White House press corps to rise above the challenges they find there.
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