Many administrations have entered and exited the White House in the last 100 years. However, what has remained constant over time is how the President and press communicate through conferences and briefings. Woodrow Wilson held the first press conference in March 1913, giving the public a means by which to question their elected officials. Those press conferences became an essential component of the American presidency, with different administrations holding from as few as 24 to as many as 93 a year.
In the 1960s press briefings took over as the main mode of communication. Conferences are organized events, scheduled at will by the administration, where the President can communicate with the press and public. Briefings, on the other hand, are not led by the President and are regularly scheduled. Thanks to Richard Nixon’s decision to turn Franklin D Roosevelt’s swimming pool into a briefing room, press briefings were established as a constant dialogue between the White House and the press. Briefings would be managed by the press secretary and other administrative officials and be held almost daily providing constant up-to-date information on the policies, proposals, and goals of the White House. As a result, press briefings have altered political media and made it possible to hold the President accountable through frequent reports. Although the relationship between the White House and press changes every administration, press conferences and briefings have grown to be a crucial means through which the press can hold the executive branch liable to the public.
Every administration determines what relationship they will have with the press; over the last hundred years, that relationship has varied drastically. When press conferences first started in the early 1900s, they were often held in the president’s office and were supervised “free-for-all.” Calvin Coolidge, who had an affinity towards the press, holds the record for most press conferences during any presidency at 407 conferences. It was, in his words, “rather necessary to the carrying on of our republican institution that the people should have a fairly accurate report of what the president is trying to do.” Roosevelt took advantage of the radio to promote his programs and policies, making him the first president to fully utilize technology to make information more accessible to the public. Meanwhile, Kennedy preferred solo, televised press conferences where he could take questions from different reporters and demonstrate his knowledge and personality. Barack Obama, on the other hand, preferred interviews with a single reporter where he could employ the best of his communication skills. Obama liked to give long and in-depth answers, and one-on-one interviews gave him the means through which to do so without sacrificing the purpose of conferences.
While conferences depend heavily on the style and preferences of a president, briefings, since their inception in 1969, have been managed in a similar fashion. The press secretary provides information to the press and holds a questions and answer session at the end. Briefings give the press and public frequent opportunities to question the executive branch on what they are doing and how they are doing it. However, different administrations have handled briefings differently; for example, during Trump’s presidency, press briefings were inconsistent and politically charged instead of fact-based.
At one point during Trump’s presidency, an unprecedented 400 days passed without a briefing. During the previous four administrations, the average number of briefings per month was almost always upwards of 10. During Trump’s first two months in office, the average number of briefings went from about 11 in January of 2017 to less than 5 the following month. The number of briefings continued to dwindle until hundreds of days passed by limiting the amount of information and interaction the press and public could have with the White House. Press briefings have served as a means by which we hold the executive branch accountable, but that is nearly impossible to do when there is no open line of communication.
On top of the inconsistency of briefings, their content was also not reliable which only further separated the press and public from the White House. During Sean Spicer’s first briefing as Press Secretary in 2017, he claimed that Trump inauguration drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” While it is difficult to know the exact number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration, a side by side comparison of his inauguration to Obama’s makes it clear that it was not the “largest audience.” This statement was intended to set up Trump’s presidency as legendary, however, instead it set a precedent for continuous and politically orientated falsehoods. Martha Joynt Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project, noticed that Trump used briefings “to promote the president and his agenda rather than as a medium where reporters establish the subjects under discussion and call upon the White House to answer to the American public on topics of their choosing.” The tone of Trump’s first briefing set the tone for the rest, where fact checks were constantly needed.The Biden administration has, in contrast, held a briefing every weekday since moving into the White House in January. Regardless of an administration’s management of press conferences and briefings, they have become a vital way for administrations to communicate and for citizens to hold them accountable.
The infrequency of briefings under the Trump administration demonstrated, paradoxically, exactly why they are so crucial to our democratic systems: for over a year, the press and in turn the public didn’t know what the president was working for or towards. When Trump introduced executive orders like the Muslim Ban, the press and public were caught off guard due to a lack of transparency during briefings. The press and the public weren’t able to communicate opposition to many of the Trump administration’s decisions because they simply didn’t know he was making them until they were already made. Regular briefings force the White House to be disciplined about achieving their proposals and pushing for legislation in a timely manner. And most importantly, they hold an administration’s spokesperson accountable for everything they say. Press briefings benefit the country and make the government better.
Given that the country has experienced what it is like to interact with politics without daily briefings, the press and public should push for reliable sources of information. Through the Biden administration’s determination to bring briefings back, it should be possible to increase awareness and make them an important part of democracy once again. The country has seen how a lack of communication can undermine our democratic institutions and principles, and we must adhere to these norms to prevent it from ever happening again.
Photo: Image via Flickr (John Sonderman)