After four years of President Donald Trump, what will change for the White House press corps covering President-Elect Joe Biden?
Anita Kumar, White House correspondent for POLITICO, Dee Dee Myers, a former White House Press Secretary, and Bill Plante, a longtime CBS White House correspondent (now retired), shared their experiences and predictions about how coverage of the White House could change during an Institute program Friday in partnership with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Subbu Vincent, director of Journalism and Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, moderated the program.
On the relationship between the press corps and the White House
Myers: There’s not a president that’s ever served that doesn’t hate the press, that doesn’t think that they’ve been treated more unfairly than any president in the history of presidents.
The mission of the press secretary’s role is to provide information, truthful information, but to control that information in a way that shines the best possible light upon the president and his objectives, his priorities, his agenda. And the press’s mission is something else: It’s to find out every single thing that’s going on, every single minute. … The public’s interest lies somewhere in between.
Plante: Reporters and administration officials live in a mutually dependent relationship: when we validate them, when we put their material in print or on social media or on the air. Or we open them to criticism. But they use us to advance themselves, their ideas — to blind test their ideas, usually — and to advance their agendas. So in this mutual relationship, one must be very careful not to be too used.
On looking ahead to covering the Biden administration
Kumar: Looking ahead now to the next administration, I think it’s going to be very, very different. They have signaled that they want to go back to what I would say is pretty much how Barack Obama’s White House handled things. …
I don’t think we’re going to hear the next president talking about the media in a disparaging way. I think that’s going to go away. They are going to have more regular briefings and things like that, but I do think that they’re going to have Joe Biden be — we’re not going to see him probably as much. … Everything’s very controlled and scripted. They decide who’s asking questions; there’s only a certain number of questions; he doesn’t answer those questions every day. So we are seeing how disciplined his office’s aides are being, and that gives us a sign of what’s to come.
On unnamed sources and leaked information
Myers: There’s two kinds of anonymous sources: the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind are the ones you can control. … And then there’s the damaging ones, where you know people are trying to settle a score or move their own agenda at the expense of the president’s agenda.
There’s all kinds of levels of reliability of information. And, so, parsing through that complex mix of motives, you know — validity, the trustworthiness of the information — is complicated. But that off-the-record information, or background information or leaked information, does serve sometimes a valuable purpose — and sometimes a nefarious purpose.
Kumar: The way I look at it is to provide information. It’s really not to hide behind an anonymous source, to criticize. It’s to get information out there that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
Plante: One of the first questions that we need to ask is: “What is the agenda of the leaker?” And it’s also very important for reporters who have good sources not to just become flacks for the sources, because you get to depend on somebody who is usually very helpful and may lose your judgment there.
On the role of the daily press briefing
Plante: First of all, let us stipulate that it is indeed theater, no question about that. But it serves a useful purpose in my view. It puts issues out there for the public to see and for the White House to respond to. Granted, the responses may be somewhat superficial, and you never get very deep into anything. And you do have people elbowing each other to get on camera and ask questions. But it’s still very important, I think, that there be this more or less free flow of information in public seen by everybody.
Kumar: I’m always going to advocate that no matter what, I think they should be there. No journalist is going to make that their sole reporting at all. The best reporting, of course, is going to be one-on-one, and it’s going to be with White House officials if you can get them.
On regaining the public trust
Plante: First of all, we have to double down on accuracy and verification and transparency. That sounds cliche, but I don’t know how else to start. You have to allow for the fact that millions of people in this country believe that we are feeding them a false narrative about who won the election.
Kumar: I do think both sides are still important, but we need to call people out when they say things that aren’t true.
Myers: We all know that humans are conditioned to look for facts that reinforce their worldview, as opposed to starting with the facts and letting those shape their worldviews. We as humans are susceptible to that, and that’s one of the reasons that social media built algorithms the way they did. And I do not know what the answer is, I just think we’re in for more of the same, at least in the short term.