Stephanie Grisham misses the point

Stephanie Grisham misses the point
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White House press secretary’s Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamHill.TV's Saagar Enjeti on impeachment: 'CNN can see through this nonsense' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Senate receives impeachment articles as trial opens Republicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles MORE’s cavalier dismissal of a letter from 13 former White House press secretaries, Foreign Service and military officials about the time-honored value of daily press briefings by the White House press secretary and urging their resumption misses the point. 

Grisham derisively calls their point of view “groupthink.” She’s right. A very distinguished group of women and men from both political parties and four administrations, all of whom have served their country and presidents by regularly answering questions from reporters, think she is not fulfilling her obligation to the country. 

With a straight face, she argues that the daily White House press briefings have become little more than an opportunity for reporters to “grandstand” on television and “look for a moment.” Isn’t that exactly what President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE does every time he is near a camera? Maybe he fears competition.

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Grisham may have a point about the press briefings being shows rather than legitimate information seeking sessions. That’s easily fixed. If, as she contends, the administration is genuinely interested in responding to reporters’ inquiries but concerned about the inevitable posturing that television cameras invite, the White House could revert to the old practice of not allowing television coverage of the briefings. That should appeal to the White House because it would ensure that the only star is the president. No silly reporters or lowly staffers would eat up any of his air time. The television networks would howl, of course, but so what? It is better for the country to have the presidential spokesperson answer questions on the record every day without television, than it is for her not to. 

The White House argues that because President Trump frequently answers questions during photo ops and as he walks to a waiting noisy helicopter, there is no real need for his press secretary to stand at the podium every day and subject herself to a cross examination by pesky reporters. Besides, they say, Grisham and her staff regularly make themselves “available” to reporters. Both are flawed arguments.

A president responding to shouted questions he chooses from a very small group of reporters during a brief photo opportunity in the Oval Office or Cabinet Room, or from the full press corps screaming to be heard over a helicopter engine, is not only undignified, it is hardly a serious examination of the complex issues facing our country. The same goes for forcing reporters to chase down White House press aides. Neither are the same as having his spokesman stand up before reporters every day in an organized setting, where policies can be explored and discussed in a thoughtful way beyond what photo-op sound bites allow. There is a useful contemporary and historic purpose served in having the executive branch explain on the record what it is doing and why, which is why every modern-day administration – until today’s – has done so.

Further, it could be argued that the White House is being short-sighted in not holding daily on-the-record press briefings. Through the briefings, the spokesperson has an opportunity to advance many of the administration’s points, and convey important messages that may otherwise get lost in the shuffle.  

In the Reagan White House, daily press briefings were an essential element in our communications strategies. They were viewed as an important vehicle to advance the president’s agenda, and they never eclipsed the president’s star billing. Additionally, they were very useful in helping us learn what was on reporters’ minds every day. 

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The Trump White House’s reasons for shutting down the daily press briefings are clear: It has contempt for the press, does not feel any particular obligation to explain what it’s doing, is afraid of the scrutiny and does not want anything to rival the spectacle that is Donald Trump.

That’s not only sad, it is irresponsible and bad for the health of our democracy, which relies on a free press to survive. As Thomas Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Like all presidents, Trump is entitled to put his own stamp on the presidency and decide what traditions to maintain and what traditions to cast aside. Early on in the Reagan presidency, we reviewed plans for a formal State Arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. Staff from the White House Usher’s office – permanent employees who had served several previous presidents – walked us through the ceremony. Asked about one particular element, they began their explanation with the word “traditionally.” One self-important aide bellowed that “tradition begins today,” which elicited snickers from us new Reagan staff and eye rolls from the permanent Usher’s office folks. Turns out that element had been in place for decades and remained a staple of how the Reagans welcomed visiting foreign guests.

Ceremonies on the White House’s South Lawn are about style, not substance, and therefore not especially important. But how the administration treats the press is about substance, not style, and therefore matters a lot. Ending briefings may seem like nothing more than Donald Trump putting his stamp on the presidency. But it is a dangerous departure from a custom that differentiates our country and helps keep us free. 

Stephanie Grisham is paid close to $200,000 a year by the American people, not the Trump Organization or the Republican National Committee. She may be pleasing her “audience of one” who sits in the Oval Office. But she is not serving her country well. 

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant and executive speechwriter, served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s White House and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office.  He is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.”