On Monday, the White House released a press briefing entitled “Press Call by Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short With Conservative Media on the Funding Bills.” In the briefing, Short answered questions about the new spending bill that will fund the government through September of 2017.
As Director of Legislative Affairs, Short’s main role in Washington, D.C. is to help the Trump administration translate its campaign agenda into real legislation. Republicans control both houses of Congress, so it makes sense that the Trump administration would reach out to the media consumed by its base.
However, there is a larger cause for concern: namely, that this call was held with only conservative media outlets.
The policy and legislative topics discussed in the call would be of interest to media across the political spectrum. If Short’s job is to help solidify President Trump’s agenda into law, sharing this call with the media-at-large would be a better strategy (assuming that the White House believes its agenda is good and the best way to address the interests of American people). It begs the question to why a more diverse media presentation was not involved, and whether there will be press calls with more liberal media to balance this out.
This type of targeted access to the White House blurs the lines between an independent press and public relations for the Oval Office. This administration has blacklisted certain media organizations before, making room for right-wing and conspiracy sites in press briefings by kicking out other, more reliable publications. The trade for this type of exclusive access to the White House tends to be news coverage that has a more favorable lean.
This is not to say that conservative media has left our Republican-ruled government completely unchecked. On the call, one of the questioners said they heard that the budget will be regarded as “very depressing news by many conservatives,” and asked for Short’s comment on that. But overall, this type of access incentivizes a certain type of coverage of this administration from the conservative media. If journalism’s job is to hold our political leadership accountable, what happens when this duty comes in conflict with having a seat at the table or ear on the call?
Though the traditional model of journalism emphasizes accuracy, context, and empiricism, media outlets can have a political lean (though I’d argue, any outlet committed to truth and accuracy over forced impartiality and false equivalencies is lumped into the ubiquitous “liberal media”). MSNBC is generally left-leaning, CNN strives to position itself as centrist, and FOX has been described as the media wing of the Republican Party. Casual consumers of political media can guess what news stations would be more sympathetic or more antagonistic towards this POTUS. The White House assumes conservative media will relay its points more “fairly” than liberal media, declaring all other mainstream cable networks “FAKE NEWS.”
The call on Monday also highlights how conservative media is held to lower journalistic standards for impartiality and unbiased reporting than demanded of liberal or progressive outlets. One can only guess whether or not the journalists on the call wrestled with the ethical conundrum of receiving this type of partisan access. But it would be much less of leap to suggest that in today’s political climate, there would be an uproar if a Democratic president held a press call with only left-leaning media, and released a briefing entitled “Press Call With Liberal Media on the Funding Bills.”
President Trump has lambasted the “fake news” for covering him unfairly, a euphemistic title for any individual journalist or news organization that holds him accountable for what he says or does (or does not do). White House Press Secretary Spicer once said that banning media outlets is something only dictators do. But selective media access is a win for politicians in the tug-of-war between the government’s aims to relay its partisan agenda, and the press’ obligation to not be used as such.
Joshua Adams is an arts and culture journalist and instructor at DePaul University. You can find him on Twitter @JournoJoshua.