Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.
It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.
Press freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution, but the press and the Founding Fathers were frenemies at best. The Constitutional Convention took place behind closed doors under an order of secrecy. John Adams served a single term as president in part because of his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which forbade “writing, printing, or uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government or the president. While Thomas Jefferson pardoned those effected by the acts when he took office, he loathed the press and ordered state attorneys to prosecute newspapers that criticized him. It would take more than a century for a defined press corps to emerge, and even longer for presidents to engage with journalists directly.
For much of the 19th century the press had to fight for access to the president’s home. In 1896, the Washington Evening Star gave journalist William “Fatty” Price an impossible task: Go to the White House and find a story. He stood outside the North Portico and interviewed presidential guests on their way in and out; the concept became a popular column called “At the White House.” Price was one of a growing number of journalists emboldened by the growing influence of the newspaper industry who pushed into the fray after more than a hundred years of deference.
Price had found a way to get inside Grover Cleveland’s White House, and presidential candidate William McKinley understood how his bread was buttered. During his 1896 campaign, McKinley staged a series of schmaltzy “front porch” events with reporters. Once his front porch moved to White House, he took that media savvy with him. His secretary began to hold rudimentary press briefings. By the time the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War, reporters had grudging access to the White House. McKinley’s assassination served as another wedge. When Theodore Roosevelt renovated the White House in 1902, he insisted on a room for the press. He needed a pulpit.
Roosevelt was a spin king who knew how to develop and manipulate press relationships. He traded generous access for control and his ground rules were simple: Everything is off the record, nobody can quote something he doesn’t vet, and the president will deny what he wants. Reporters who violated those rules were thrown out.
Press briefings were more common when Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913. The new president added an innovation of his own: The formal press conference, with an emphasis on formal. After exchanging awkward jokes with reporters, Wilson was “stiff in manner and terse and not at all forthcoming.” He too insisted on staying off the record. After a few years Wilson mostly abandoned the briefings. (He did take them up again after his 1916 reelection, but less frequently.)
The traditions of press conferences hobbled on, though it’s unclear what the press corps got out of carefully-vetted written statements or tedious, off-the-record conversations with the White House. In 1933, newly-elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt slackened their leash a bit, promising “delightful family conferences” and abandoning the practice of requiring reporters to submit written questions. But FDR’s first press conference was still an exercise in control. “There will be a great many questions, of course, that I won’t answer,” he told the press corps before launching into a lecture about the difference between “off the record” and “on background.” Despite Roosevelt’s refusal to provide any hard news, the press corps gamely applauded.
It took another two decades for presidential statements to make their way onto the record. In the meantime, the chief executive and his entire staff had complete authority over who quoted them and how. When Harry Truman told reporters “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Joseph McCarthy” at a 1950 press conference, an unnamed reporter erupted in glee: “Brother, will that hit page one tomorrow!” Truman knew he’d have to back off. As reporters begged him to let them use the quote, he quickly revised the statement. “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States,” Just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
On December 16, 1953, Truman held the first press conference to be directly quoted in its entirely. Not that it held much news: It was also Truman’s last press conference, and contained a statement about the “strong and vital democracy” enabled by a free press corps that put the president through the kind of news conference where “reporters can ask any question they can dream up.” It was television — not the goodwill of the chief executive — that put the final nail in the coffin of the off-the-record press conference. In January 1955, the first televised press conference was held by Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.” John F. Kennedy held the first live press conference on TV six years later.
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, where most White House briefings occur today, was installed in 1969 — relocated outside of the West Wing, where the old press corps office was located, by Richard Nixon. Tellingly, Nixon placed the press room over an indoor swimming pool, prompting grim jokes that the press-loathing executive had a button he could use to dunk unwitting reporters.
Having a dedicated space for briefings and other activities gave reporters more space to operate, but it also served as a pen to contain them. Despite decorating the briefing room and other press spaces in living room-like fashion, the Nixon made it clear he didn’t want reporters elsewhere in his residence.
Today, members of the corps are still held fast to executive custom. They have assigned seats, and briefings are governed by strict traditions: The order in which reporters are called on, and the things those reporters are told, is subject to White House whim. Sure, there are first names and knee slaps and jokes, but beneath the veneer of supposed freedom is a rein and a bit.
Attempting to steer the media is one thing, declaring war on them is another. Inside the president’s house, the press has always been on tenuous ground, sitting a few feet away from the proverbial deep end. The press corps is a guest in the president’s home — a visitor who’s tolerated, but not necessarily welcome. The most disturbing thing about the Trump administration’s ban on cameras, the off-the-record lunches, and the shunning of the press isn’t that the government is trying to curtail press access. It’s that they can. Custom and tradition are just that: accepted ways of doing things. As a measure of the democratic process, the press briefing can act as the canary in the coal mine. When its traditions are thrown out, what next?
- “Why the White House daily briefing is in such trouble” (Jay Rosen, Pressthink, June 2017)
- “A Brief(ing) History of the White House Press Secretary” (Shaunacy Ferro, Mental Floss, January 2017
- “The Fascinating History of the White House Press Room” (Richard E. Farely, Town and Country, January 2017)