News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The White House Task Force Briefings Should No Longer Be Televised

Since the creation of the White House task force, and the President’s naming of his Vice President, Mike Pence, as its mealymouthed leader, there has been a steady drumbeat from media critics who think the Press should tune out.

They’ve argued that the President has done more harm than good by holding these nearly daily on-camera events. I wholeheartedly disagreed, primarily because he’s the President, and without a functioning Press Secretary – the new one refuses to work with us, like her predecessor – these are precious opportunities to carry the President’s messages to the American people, allowing them to judge for themselves the content, and to question him, challenge him, and speak truth to power, as is our role and responsibility.

I have held that belief for all these exhausting weeks, even when the President missed every opportunity to express genuine, sincere empathy for those who are sick, the tens of thousands who have died horrific deaths, or to their families who are forced to grieve in silence, alone.

I believed we had to cover the briefings even when it became clear that the President’s posturing would always be to deflect criticism, to shirk responsibility, and to pick petty fights with Governors who have been desperate for information, gear, equipment and financial aid – desperate to try to save their constituents lives.

I felt we should still cover the briefings even when the President would openly question his own appointees to the task force – infectious-disease experts who come equipped with data and analyses that he flippantly disregards in real time.

Even when critics cried, “He’s using these as substitute campaign rallies,” I still felt we have to cover them. To ignore them would be irresponsible and a dereliction of our duty, right?

I, along with so many of my colleagues in news, have cringed when he’s used the precious time to admonish journalists, especially women reporters, accusing anyone who asks a pointed, legitimate question of being “fake news” or worse. The tough-guy act feels like a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it’s textbook Orwellian; if you can convince people not to believe anything, they won’t believe the truth about you. The other purpose, I believe, is to create audio and video clips for conservative media outlets to run, showing the President “fighting back” – macho and chest thumping.

I suppose with some people who are firmly planted in the President’s corner, no matter his egregious unforced errors, it works to get their blood boiling, their anger stoked. It juices up the base.

A hard-boiled German who’s been around, even I welled up the day the President boasted about how great the ratings were for his briefings, as New York City and other communities across the nation zipped up hundreds of body bags in that single day. The lack of empathy was shocking, gutting really. It made me question if we’ll live through this – as individuals and as a nation.

Admittedly, as the time has passed, I have questioned the approach of the Press sitting before him. I believed that if they could simply target their questions to the experts and keep them keenly focused on the public health and safety information Americans need to know, that it would somehow keep these briefings from veering off course.

I suggested to broadcasters that they factor in a longer delay so that they could digitally filter out anything that was overtly false or potentially harmful to the viewing public. None of that has worked.

The President went on to use the briefings to recklessly promote a drug that hadn’t been rigorously tested through clinical trials as a treatment for COVID-19 infection. Despite warnings across the globe that its use was linked to heart failure and stroke in these cases, he continued to promote it. Lupus patients suddenly couldn’t get their prescriptions filled for the drug, putting their very lives at risk while the President continued to promote it. We later learned that he has a financial stake in the pharmaceutical company that makes it.

Donald J. Trump also used taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign video, which he shamelessly played during one notorious briefing, perking up the ears of watchdog agencies. He’s defied social/physical distance rules established by the White House Correspondents Association, designed to keep the Press and the President himself safe from infection during these daily meetings. He’s repeatedly invited pet network OANN into the room in defiance of these very rules, allowing its “reporters” to pitch him softball, seemingly planned and scripted questions designed to stroke the President’s ego and disparage political opponents. It’s right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.

I have been hyperaware of the lack of real leadership on display here. A leader, even in cases of notable accomplishments and success, reflects back and thinks: “How could we have done even better?” There’s no introspection by the President of the United States. He is incapable of it.

And still – even with all this in our wake – I was of the mind that the Press had to broadcast and cover these briefings, because he’s the President of the United States, and it is our duty to shine lights on him whenever we have access, and especially when we don’t.

But that’s all changed for me now. I have come around to the position the critics have taken – that we should no longer broadcast these briefings in real time. My professional opinion changed when the President used last weeks’ time before the American people to encourage the protesters who have taken the streets – some dressed as if they’re going to war, some sporting swastika and other antisemitic symbols, others with Confederate flags – to defy the very orders his own task force established. For weeks, the President, the Vice President, the doctors, and other members of the Administration have stood before us preaching the importance of following the guidelines and reading from lists of things that the President said we should all be grateful for – Federally supplied personal protection equipment, respirators, financial aid, military vessels and personnel, field hospitals, short-lived testing sites, and more.

Now, the President and the Vice President are lauding the protesters, empathizing with their “cabin fever,” and refusing to admonish their reckless disregard for the health and safety of not just “the others” – their fellow American citizens – but their own health and that of their own families. It overtly demonstrates that the President and the Vice President have not taken their roles seriously, that they haven’t even bought into the guidelines they’ve established, and that they do not care how many Americans will die as a result of their politicking.

There’s a Willie Nelson song that goes, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” The White House Task Force briefings had the potential to do some really good things – to inform the public, to help keep us all safe. They haven’t risen to the occasion.

Legitimate news organizations should shut off the lights and remove the cameras from the briefing room. Send in your reporters, but cover the briefings straight, giving no room for the President to make an on-camera mockery out of them and us.

The public-servant doctors on the task force should take a different approach, too. It’s time to “go rogue” and speak directly to the American people without the President’s political filter. It’s long overdue. Our nation is depending on you.

Politics & Public Policy

Farewell, Sarah

Farewell, Sarah

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ tenure as the White House Press Secretary wanes, I am cognizant of how much time has passed since she was named to the position, and all of the former Trump Administration personnel and cabinet members she’s seen come and go.

Indicted former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lasted a mere 24 days on the job. Chief of Staff Reince Preibus tried to manage a Trump White House for 192 days. Sean Spicer got a pink slip at 182 days. Former White House Communications Director Michael Dubke was only there for 88 days.

For perspective, it has been 94 days since the Press Secretary held her last official briefing with the White House Press Corp. That’s her primary duty.

Remarkably, Huckabee Sanders has been on the job for nearly two years now, as others have come and gone. Like another familiar Mark Burnett Production, she outwitted and outlasted.

The 36-year-old was born in Hope, Arkansas, hometown to one William Jefferson Clinton. Some might say she had two strikes against her growing up. Her father – Mike Huckabee – was both a preacher and a politician. He is also a musician, so take from that what you will.

The youngest of his children, Sarah grew up in the public purview, and clearly paid close attention to her father’s political maneuvering. She studied political science at university, despite those observations.

Huckabee Sanders isn’t just tough, she’s smart – and almost immediately, she proved measurably sharper, quicker-witted and less inclined to defensive anger than her Press Secretary predecessor. She also proved a good student and a quick study, picking up Trump’s formulaic song-and-dancing nearly out of the gate.

You’ll spot the pattern now, too:

1. Overstate a problem.
2. Credit the Trump as being the only one who can solve it. Speak in grandiose, superlative terms.
3. When asked a question, double down. Restate the problem; restate the President’s solution.
4. When asked again, restate it, more emphatically. Appear annoyed.
5. When challenged again, interrupt and feign offense – as in, how dare you ask me that question/waste my time. Then, insult the questioner, implying that the person is daft, biased or nefariously motivated.
6. Cut off line of questioning.

These rhetorical shell games are second nature to New York-native Trump. They likely didn’t come as easily to an Arkansas gal.

But she applied herself.

If the President is the confidence man, Huckabee Sanders sometimes felt like his hungry street-scrappy eager-to-learn protégé. When she spoke on behalf of the President, it felt practiced, rehearsed, drilled in.

Though the climate in the briefing room might lead spectators to think that there was real deep-seeded animosity between the Press Secretary and the Press, that sentiment perhaps was one-sided. She is, after all, the Press Secretary who refused to denounce her boss’ assertions that media is an “enemy of the people,” while standing in a room with them.

Still, the Press Corps rushes to assemble and sit still before her and raise their hands and ask mostly softball questions, because they’re only granted two.

They didn’t expect her to be a perfectly honest broker. They realize it’s her job to spin. But they do hope for professionalism, access to her, and a baseline agreement that the Press is there as a representative of – not the enemy of — the American people.

Many of Huckabee Sanders’ critics have labeled her a liar and propagandist. They say it as if it’s somehow novel and new. But that’s the job, isn’t it? The President is entitled to have PR representation, after all. That she does it with skill and aplomb is what makes those critics even more infuriated.

Though she proved to be sharp and nimble on her feet, Huckabee Sanders was never smarter nor faster than most of the people wearing Press passes in that room, who detect and adjudicate corruption, slick personality, rhetorical subterfuge and disinformation, day in and day out.

There were plenty of moments when I and others in the media felt kinship with and empathy for the Press Secretary. None of us wished for her to be harassed at a restaurant. If any segment of the population sympathizes with what it’s like to be belittled, verbally assaulted, threatened or even violently victimized just for doing your job, it’s the Press.

In the aftermath of that dinner interruptus, Huckabee Sanders was granted Secret Service protection – a first for a White House Press Secretary – and the incident became just more political nonsense, more American-versus-American cannon fodder. Sadly, she let that happen.

By contrast, Kamala Harris, a sitting U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate had to be protected by MoveOn.org host Karine Jean-Pierre when an animal rights protester recently jumped on stage at a speaking event and grabbed a mic from the Senator’s hand before he was “escorted out.”

None of this behavior is acceptable; that should be a bipartisan position. Sarah missed the opportunity to be the voice to say so.

My most sympathetic-to-Sarah moment came on Anthony Scaramucci’s notorious first day on the job. Cute and dimple-cheeked, with a dazzling smile and a gift of gab that had certainly opened many doors for the new White House Communications Director, Scaramucci brought a guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with demeanor and convivial candor to the podium.

He immediately squandered all of that favorable equity when he invited the Press Secretary up to the podium with him – fresh from a photo shoot, hair blown out, cheeks thickly rouged, contouring lines cartoonish under the unforgiving lighting, and a smoky eye that became the subject of a joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that year, sparking outrage and forever ending comic participation at the annual event.

I wonder if she thinks about that now – that her hurt feelings smothered a 105-year tradition, an annual event that represents a temporary cease-fire between politicians and Press, in the interest of charity.

I’ve often wondered why her feelings didn’t seem hurt when Scaramucci brought her up on the podium that day and told the world how much more appealing she was with her new vamped-up look. When he advised her to keep the glam squad on staff full time, I cringed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

And she never needed the eyeliner. She was perfectly lovely without all the gunk on her face. More so.

In the end, bad judgment – or karma – got Scaramucci six days later. He was out, but she endured.

Huckabee Sanders didn’t just survive the role, she thrived in it. And, in her, Trump got both an accomplished spin doctor and an Evangelical Whisperer. What the President himself lacks in spirituality and religious discipline, he makes up for with a deep bullpen of zealots. They pray over him and lay hands on him. They anoint him and empower him. And when one of his disciplines speaks to them – no matter the veracity or absurdity of her message to them – they believe her, because she is one of them.

Huckabee Sanders’ legacy as Press Secretary will sadly include a petty crackdown on the White House Press Corps and threats of rescinded press credentials and impeded access. She will also be remembered for lying to the Special Counsel and having to issue a mea culpa for it. If that were you and me, we’d be jailed for perjury.

None of us in news will easily forget the time she knowingly tweeted out a “deep fake” video, to falsely accuse CNN’s Jim Acosta of assaulting a young female aid. It was vicious, and even when she was lambasted for perpetuating it, she refused to delete the video and refused to apologize for the defamatory intent.

There was also the time she denied the United States was detaining kids in cages at the border – despite Jacob Soboroff’s exemplary first-hand reporting to the fact – and later asserted that inhumane border policy, with children dying under our watch, was sanctioned by God because the Bible says people should obey laws.

During Huckabee Sanders’ time as Press Secretary, plenty of us media types have opined about the value to tasking reporters and tech crews to the Briefing Room if the lies are so unvarnished, so garish, so dangerous, that reporting on them – on what she says, on what the President asserts – feels like a betrayal of our oath to accurately and intelligently inform the public. And yet, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders (infrequently) comes to the podium, there they are, ready to fulfill their end of the pact.

Post Huckabee Sanders, the notion of the crafty, calculating, but mostly noble Press Secretary portrayed in The West Wing by Allison Janney seems contrived and romanticized, quaint now – a thing of the past, like black-and-white TVs, paper boys slinging the news, and people who can’t wait to “read all about it.”

It is remarkable that Huckabee Sanders lasted a couple of years in this role – not 3.5 years, as the President alleged in a tweet yesterday. After all, he hasn’t yet been President for that long.

Though she graciously said that the gig was “the honor of a lifetime,” I imagine the constant scrutiny and a mad-king boss might leave a person shaken, exhausted and uncertain how to personally heal and professionally follow it up.

I also imagine that she’ll have some atoning to do, this preacher’s daughter – that is, if lying is still considered sinful per the Baptist Church. Conservative estimates put the President at a remarkable 10,000+ lies told since his inauguration. She echoed thousands of them. Now someone else will.

Godspeed, Sarah.

News & Publishing

In Turbulent Media Climate, National and State Press Associations Continue to Serve as Advocates and Educators for Their Members

By Gretchen A. Peck

The business of newspapers is no longer competitive. While most towns may still have a local community newspaper, very few have two. Now, the culture is more collaborative, with publishers willing to work together, and share both their challenges and successes with one another.

Bringing them together are national and state press associations. They’ve felt the same struggles as their members, but they are proving to be invaluable allies in the quest to overcome them.

Read more at Editor & Publisher magazine:

https://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/in-turbulent-media-climate-national-and-state-press-associations-continue-to-serve-as-advocates-and-educators-for-their-members/

 

News & Publishing

Three News Outlets Form Oregon Capital Bureau to Expand Coverage

By Gretchen A. Peck

In Oregon, newspaper publishers have recognized the need to provide their communities with better and deeper coverage of state government and politics. Their answer was the creation of the Oregon Capital Bureau.

Under the editorial leadership of veteran investigative reporter Les Zaitz, the Bureau leverages the newsroom talent of three local news organizations: the Pamplin Media Group, publisher of the Portland Tribune and 24 other weekly, twice-weekly and monthly titles; EO Media Group, publisher of the East Oregonian, Daily Astorian and nine other titles; and the Salem Reporter, a digital news service that Zaitz heads up as editor. The Salem Reporter—co-founded by Zaitz and real estate developer Larry Tokarski—recently launched in September.

Read further at Editor & Publisher magazine: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/a-section/three-news-outlets-form-oregon-capital-bureau-to-expand-coverage/?fbclid=IwAR1Gov8Bsc1FeuifrhjZweTxysIGODwPkixEskcNoEVMuulyEjwXHZGGn8k

Photo courtesy of Les Zaitz

News & Publishing

Using Venture Philanthropy, American Journalism Project Seeks to Sustain Vital News Coverage

By Gretchen A. Peck

It was 2015 when an idea first began to germinate for Elizabeth Green, the co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization devoted to American education.

“I’d been thinking that the way philanthropy organizes in the education sector had lessons that could be applied to journalism philanthropy sector that was emerging slowly at the time—too slowly, I thought,” she said.

In the education sector, Green and her colleagues at Chalkbeat had begun to talk about how enriching it could be to create a network by which educational-publishing leaders might share and learn from one another. Green began speaking with philanthropists known to invest in journalism and suggested that they “steal from that playbook.”

Read more at Editor & Publisher magazine: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/a-section/using-venture-philanthropy-american-journalism-project-seeks-to-sustain-vital-news-coverage/

Photo: AJP’s Elizabeth Green

 

News & Publishing

Ongoing legislative battles put Public Notices in peril

By Gretchen A. Peck

Author’s Note: The relationship between newspapers and Public Notice authors is being challenged across the U.S. What does this mean for newspapers and the public? I took a look at the issue in the October 2018 issue of Editor & Publisher magazine.

If you look closely at the fine print just below the banner logo for PublicNoticeAds.com, a single-source searchable database for legal ads published by “participating newspapers” across the country, it reads: “The public notice database on this site is not a substitute for the official publication that is required by law. You will still find those notices in your local newspaper.”

On the site’s homepage are links to each to state with “participating newspapers,” though most simply redirect the browser to other websites of a similar design. For example, clicking on the link to Connecticut redirects the user to Connecticut public notices, which is “powered by MyPublicNotices.com.” From there, users can click on individual links to public notices on individual websites for each newspaper title, or search notices published in any of the state’s local and regional titles.

In fact, legally mandated public notices are already prevalently available online and digitally redundant to what’s published in printed newspapers. In addition to these sites, they are also found on government-maintained sites, legal sites and on many newspaper-branded websites.

Yet, in several states just this year, legislators have proposed bills that would allow for public notices to bypass print altogether, possibly narrowing access to information and starving newspapers of the revenue derived from publishing information of this kind.

Given the legislative effort that feels coordinated and party-centric, E&P went in search of who and what was behind the lobby for this legislation and answers to what it would mean to newspapers if printed public notices become obsolete.

Read more at:
http://www.editorandpublisher.com/feature/ongoing-legislative-battles-put-public-notices-in-peril/