I’ve never been a fan of press-conference journalism. It may be a marginal improvement on canned-quotes press-release journalism when it comes to public accountability, but most press conferences I’ve attended are little more than carefully staged theatre pieces designed to control and direct the flow of information and emotion in ways favourable to the presenter.
At every press conference, there’s inevitably an opening, this-is-your-news-soundbite statement to the cameras followed by a faux question-and-answer session in which variations of the same pre-masticated talking-point answers get trotted out again and again, no matter the actual question asked.
The press conference puppet master ultimately determines who gets to ask questions and who doesn’t. And, thanks to the next-reporter, next-question structure of press conferences, there’s rarely an opportunity for organized follow-up to even the most significant issue.
To make matters worse, there is an opportunity cost whenever so many reporters sit captive in the same room for so long asking the same questions and getting the same non-answers. What real news do those puppet masters want reporters not to realize they are missing?
I couldn’t help thinking about all that last week as the latest Donald Trump press conference imbroglio played out on my TV screen.
The day after the US mid-terms, Donald Trump staged a rambling 90-minute press conference in the East Room to spin the dross of Republican electoral loss into the gold of never-ending Trumpian triumph — “It was a big day yesterday,” he began as he intended to continue, “an incredible day” — and thus re-establish his personal ownership of the news cycle.
The real news was the news Trump didn’t mention. At the very moment Trump was playing his detached-from-reality, devoid-of-humanity self on TV, his White House was in the consequential process of firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with a Trump-lite, Mueller-inquiry-is-a-witch-hunt, judges-should-be-Christian, can-I-peddle-you-a-patent-scammer, failed-Iowa-prosecutor/politician named Matt Whitaker.
What we got instead of information and context was spectacle, a bread-and-circuses distraction from all the many and various matters that really matter in the fractured Disunited States of America. While that may be/is primarily the president’s fault, the media can’t escape their willing, eager enabler role in this mess.
Consider the press conference’s now infamous confrontation between Trump and CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta, a moment that featured all the spontaneity of a choreographed WWE Smackdown moment.
Start with this. President Trump called on Acosta. He didn’t have to. He did it because he knew Acosta would leap for the bait. And he did, open-mouthed, then chomping down hard. Which allowed Trump to score raw-meat points with his CNN-Sucks base. And he did. Which was, of course, the real point.
Acosta did not ask a question. Instead: “Thank you, President. I wanted to challenge you on one of the points you made in the tail-end of the campaign, the mid-terms, that this—”
At which point, Trump cut him off like the schoolyard bully he is raising his rhetorical fists for the coming combat, talking over Acosta. “Here we go. Let’s go! Let’s go! Come on…”
“Well if you don’t mind, Mr. President,” Acosta returned to his challenge, “that this caravan was an invasion. As you know, Mr. President…”
Trump: “I consider it to be an invasion.”
Acosta: “As you know Mr. President, the caravan was not an invasion…”
After a brief sparring match, Trump moved in for the kill. “You know what? I honestly think you should let me run the country. You run CNN. And if you did it well, your ratings would be much better.” Gotcha! Badaboom! Or so it will undoubtedly translate to Trump’s MAGA-cap-wearing tribe.
Even though Acosta had had his chance to ask his non-question and score the sound-bite non-answer his CNN talking-heads panel back in the studio could then mine for meaning in the lead-up to the next commercial break, Acosta persisted. “If I may ask one other question, Mr. President, if I may —”
Note that Acosta hadn’t actually asked a question to this point, though there was no shortage of actual questions he could have asked: Did the president consult with military leaders before ordering thousands of troops to the border and, if so, what did they advise him? What specific evidence does he have that there are violent criminals among the migrants? Middle Easterners? Where does that evidence come from? How does he square his decision to close the border to asylum seekers with international law?
At which point, Trump decided to dismiss Acosta. “That’s enough…” he said.
It may be that Trump had already achieved what he’d intended and really was ready to move on. Or, more likely, that he knew Acosta couldn’t resist returning for another face punch. Which he did, continuing to talk over Trump’s attempt to move on to the next reporter’s non-question.
Which gave Trump his opportunity. “I’ll tell you what,” he told Acosta what. “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.”
And so it went. On and on. The microphone incident. Sarah Sanders’ pretend outrage at Acosta’s threat to womankind. The doctored video of Acosta’s encounter with an intern. The White House’s decision to pull Acosta’s hard-pass access. CNN’s denunciation of this outrageous threat to the free press. Trump’s threat to do the same to other reporters who step out of line…
And then there was this telling moment. Over the weekend, Acosta showed up in Paris to cover the president’s trip there. “Greetings from Paris where we are on the ground for Trump’s trip to France,” Acosta tweeted. Trump, no doubt, will be happy to see him. They need each other.
None of this is to excuse the inexcusable Trump. To badly paraphrase John Lennon: News is what happens when you’re busy attending press conferences.
Or, as BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis wrote of last week’s press conference: “You could argue the president came looking for it — he does well, electorally, when he’s berating the press. But make no mistake. The media also do well when they are baiting the bear. The urge to poke can sometimes seem irresistible. It works for viewing figures in the same way it works for electoral success. It works, in other words, for those who like their chambers echoed — but it’s an odd place for news to sit.”
Odd indeed. And sad.