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Hostility between White House and press makes reporters dogged for the truth

While in Washington attending the St Patrick’s Day White House celebrations TheJournal.ie paid a visit to reporters in the press briefing room.

Enda Kenny visits US - day 5 White House Press Secretery Sean Spicer takes question from the media at the west wing in Washington. Source: Niall Carson

Sometimes we can disagree with facts.

IT’S STATEMENTS LIKE this which have helped entrench the struggle between White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and some parts of the media in Washington.

Since Donald Trump became the US President, Spicer and the journalists of the White House press corps have hardly had the most cordial of relationships.

In the past, not many people – other than die-hard politicos – would know much about the White House Press Secretary, but Spicer became an overnight celebrity in January when he berated the media for its coverage of Trump’s inauguration ceremony at his very first press conference.

Source: CasonVids/YouTube

Storming into the press briefing room, armed with images and charts, he claimed Trump’s inauguration had attracted the biggest audience in history, despite evidence saying otherwise.

Twitter was flooded with #SpicerFacts jokes, while comedian Melissa McCarthy upped the ante when she portrayed the press secretary during a skit for NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

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Spicer’s press conferences – which had been staid, insular events under previous press secretaries -  have become entertainment for the masses, garnering an average of 4.3 million viewers for some broadcasts, according to analysts Nielson, and frequently making the headlines.

But then things got serious.

In February, the White House kept major media outlets, including the New York Times and CNN, out of a daily press briefing. Reporters found themselves being labelled as ‘fake news’ by the president. Suddenly things weren’t so funny anymore.

‘Fake news’ 

So, how has the relationship between the White House and press corps changed since Trump took office and Sean Spicer took the helm?

source

While in Washington attending the St Patrick’s Day White House celebrations last week, TheJournal.ie got the opportunity to spend some time in the briefing room and ask some well-placed political journalists how things are going under the new administration.

“It is totally different to anything before. I have never in my 35 years in this city seen anything like it,” said one senior Washington reporter.

“It has never been quite so adversarial, and so openly adversarial. What has been going on, I can’t underestimate how unique it is,” they added.

Every day there are heated discussions between Spicer and reporters. Just this week, Spicer took issue with an NBC reporter using vague terms to ask questions about the Russian ties to the Trump government.

Source: CasonVids/YouTube

The press secretary said the media continues to search for something, which he told reporters, doesn’t exist.

Source: Amicus Humani Generis/YouTube

What do reporters think the new administration is playing at?

“It represents, for them, a political strategy, it isn’t just about the media, it’s about creating a narrative and using the media as a tool to do that.

“It goes way beyond the day-to-day stuff, it really is a strategy of handling the facts and the truth. I have never seen anything like it,” said one reporter.

Has it encouraged a new interest in politics for some citizens?

“More people are watching than ever before,” said another reporter, who highlights that puts added responsibility on journalists operating in the White House.

“It has made reporters more dogged in the pursuit of the truth… nothing motivates a reporter more than the feeling that they have been misled, it is quite motivating, it is kind of a challenge to us professionally and it makes reporters work harder.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The day TheJournal.ie paid a visit to the White House was on 16 March – the day Enda Kenny had a meeting with President Trump.

Spicer took to his podium to inform reporters about Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s visit to the Oval Office and President Trump’s remarks at the Friends of Ireland Luncheon at the Capitol.

The President was honored to host him here in the Oval Office and recommit to strong social, political, and economic relations between the US and Ireland. 

Enda Kenny visits US - day 5 Source: Niall Carson

But other than the bowl of shamrock, there are more pressing issues for the American reporters.

Trump’s revised version of the travel ban was due to come into effect before a federal court judge in Hawaii managed to halt the president’s plans. The president was not too happy about another executive order being blocked, something Spicer conveyed to journalists.

“The danger is real, and the law is clear. The President was elected to change our broken immigration system, and he will continue to exercise his constitutional authority and presidential responsibility to protect our nation.”

Trump US Ireland Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Spicer then walked the media through the schedule of events for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit for the next day (we all knew how that panned out).

After the press conference, reporters flutter around the room, sending tweets, writing copy and doing live news broadcasts.

The mainstream media has been criticised for failing to recognise how Trump resonated with the voters during the presidential election.

Many of the well-established media outlets never took Trump’s campaign seriously, writing scathing articles about the businessman who they assumed hadn’t a hope of making it to the White House.

However, many of those very reporters now find themselves in the same room as the man and his press secretary, being briefed on his policies.

One reporter said generally, there is a good working-relationship with the press secretaries, but this administration has proved different.

The relationship has never been this hostile before between the White House and the press. There were times, of course, in the past, where there were issues, but this, no, nothing like this.
This is a game plan. It is about destabilising the institutions.
I have never had to report in such an environment in all my years.

The barring of some newspapers and broadcasters by the new administration is of serious concern to reporters.

The banning of media outlets, the attempted censoring, it’s a huge issue for democracy and the free press.

“It is creating a challenge for us, I think,” said another.

Views on to the White House lawn 

The White House press briefing room is pretty small and narrow, with views onto the White House front lawn.

What viewers at home see is reporters crammed into a small space, seeking answers from Spicer on the president’s daily activities and asking the tough questions.

Reporters are squashed into close quarters, cameras to the back, with just a handful of desks in separate rooms at the back of the briefing room where reporters quickly file their copy. There is a small kitchenette area where no doubt plenty a cup of coffee is drank.

With Spicer just a couple of feet away from journalists, it is no wonder the atmosphere can get pretty tense. And it resonates through the television.

While the reality of the job has become entertaining, the room and that podium have long been featured in Hollywood.

CJ Cregg made the press briefings famous during her portrayal as White House press secretary in the TV drama, The West Wing. She even returned to give a real-life briefing last year.

Source: Michael McIntee/YouTube

And who can forget the finale speech by Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, at the finale of The American President. It has to be one of the best (fake) speeches ever made at that podium.

Source: Paleonova/YouTube

Journalists, while stating their job is a lot more difficult now, state that the unpredictability of it all is making readers engage more with their content.

If they think it is putting off readers from the media, it is doing the exact opposite, our readership is on the rise since it all kicked off.
It is making more people who were never really paying attention to politics to take notice. Not because they particularly care about his policies, but because of the suspense. They want to see what he is going to say or do next.

Many of the reporters pointed out that it has made media outlets focus on the cold, hard fact of a news story.

Reporting tools like fact checking (synonymous with the Washington Post and also carried out by this website) have proved popular and cut through the noise for most readers.

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One reporter said readers really like the straight-forward fact checks and are getting great feedback.

They said their newspaper is getting letters from the public for the first time in years, either asking for something to be fact checked or thanking reporters for unearthing the truth behind some of the statements.

‘Thank you for your service’ – that’s what some of the letters say, said one reporter, who added that the cards and letters now hang on the wall in the newsroom.

That has never happened before, it’s the first time in my memory anyway.

“Every day is different,” said one reporter, who added that journalists in this age have to keep their eyes open and question everything.

“He [Trump] wants to undermine the institutions – the government, the judiciary, the media – so that there is just chaos. It’s our job to question those in power, no matter who they are, and not go into something with a preconceived idea of what the truth is.”

What’s grabbing people’s’ attention recently? Health and Russia, said one reporter.

What is going to be done with health and also all this Russia business – that is certainly something that has captured the attention of the public. Where it will lead, any of it, who knows?

TheJournal.ie’s Washington DC coverage: Trump’s ‘new friend’: What happened at the White House, when Enda came to visit…>

When is racist language racist? Enda Kenny facing big questions in the US>

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