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18 December 2018

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is killing the White House briefing. Should we mourn it?

The White House press secretary held only four briefings in September, October and November.

By Nicky Woolf

Asked by Politico’s Eliana Johnson last week what she wanted her legacy to be, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that she wants to be remembered as “transparent and honest.” Obviously, that is flat-out hilarious, just as it was when she told the New York Times in May that it “bothers” her when she is accused of lying, “because one of the few things you have are your integrity and reputation”.

Leaving aside the fact that when she does take the podium she lies all the goddamtimeand then some – Sanders’ actual legacy is likely to be the quiet killing off of the White House briefing itself. As Tom Wood, a political scientist at Ohio State University pointed out on Twitter on Friday, the daily incidence of White House press briefings has plummeted under Sanders’ watch.

Her predecessor, Sean Spicer, may have shared her commitment to doubling down on this president’s lies and covering up his fumbles, but at least he maintained the press briefings at almost the same rate as in previous administrations. Especially since August, a month marked by the Trump White House ordering children to be housed in cages, she has decided that the best way to forment her legacy of honesty and transparency is simply to not bother.

Last October, Sanders’ third month on the job, she took to the podium 13 times, roughly on par with previous years. But this October, she publicly briefed the press only twice. In September and November, she only held a single briefing.

There is something to be said for the argument that under an administration that is completely comfortable with lying – more, an administration that is unworried about being caught lying, and which moreover seeks to publicly demonise the press as individuals and as an institution – there is little point in sending reporters to the briefing room anyway.

Certainly, cable news networks should know better now than to carry the administration’s lies live and unchallenged into viewers’ homes; some are now at least trying to figure out ways to fact-check during a live broadcast.

For television the incentive-structure is particularly skewed; some reporters use the attention gained in the briefing room by challenging the administration as an opportunity for showboating, rather than to force the administration to actually answer questions. But for print reporting, too, the White House press corps’ culture has been problematic, incentivising a focus on court intrigue and easy outrage over real issues and data-led reporting. But this is made worse by what is replacing it: private huddles or random encounters with Sanders or the president, often as he is en route to board Marine One and can dodge questions by simply pretending not to hear them over the noise of the rotors.

But still, as an institutional tradition in which a free press gets to directly question the administration and hopefully get answers which will help hold it to account, the White House press briefing room is an important part of American democracy. Sanders’ cowardice is putting that in jeopardy.

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