With the final remnants of a repeal of Obamacare and a modicum of health insurance reform hanging in the balance in the United States Senate, and North Korea threatening to shoot down American aircraft in international waters it would be fair for most Americans to think that Monday’s White House briefing would be substantive, serious and focused on such important foreign and domestic issues that have serious ramifications for our country and the world.
And, sadly, most Americans would be wrong.
The dominant topic in the daily back-and-forth with reporters and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was the unfolding drama between President Trump and the NFL over the president’s condemnation of professional football players who refuse to stand during the national anthem.
Here at Mediaite, where we cover those who cover the news, we had three different posts focusing on the NFL story at the press briefing versus just one on the North Korea story. None of the very few questions on health insurance legislation rose to the level of coverage here at Mediaite, because there was nothing really newsworthy in those exchanges.
I don’t think anyone would argue that the American people are well served by the White House press corps focusing on a spat between Trump and the NFL rather than a bill that will affect every American’s health insurance and a possible military confrontation with a hostile country. So who’s to blame for this focus on the relatively trivial at the expense of the indisputably significant?
During the remarkable press briefing Monday, the question of what the assembled reporters were focused on actually came up and according to Huckabee-Sanders, the reporters are to blame. Here’s the dialogue between Huckabee-Sanders and Jon Decker of Fox News Radio:
SANDERS: It really doesn’t take that long to type out 140 characters, and this president’s very capable of doing more than one thing at a time and more than one thing in a day.
DECKER: But you see, Sarah, how it’s taken up so much oxygen, right? When the president speaks about that particular issue, you see how the majority of questions that have been asked of you so far today have been about this particular issue.
SANDERS: Well, that’s determined by you guys.
DECKER: He has a tremendous amount of power when he tweets. You know, we report on it. And, so, when he tweets something, it does take away from his legislative agenda. Would you not agree?
SANDERS: No, I don’t. Because I think it’s important for our president to show patriotism, to be a leader on this issue, and he has.
In other words, Decker is admitting that the reporters at the White House can’t help but to address the president’s tweets rather than arguably more important topics. It’s not their fault the president distracts them so effectively.
Isn’t it though?
Huckabee-Sanders is absolutely correct when she says that the agenda of these press briefings is “determined by you guys” referring to the reporters in the room. It was the press corps who allowed themselves to be distracted by the president with the NFL topic. And one wonders if the president knew that would be the case.
It’s also instructive to see how the reporters int he press corps framed their questions on the topic. What, exactly, was their intention in drawing the press secretary out with further explanations of the president’s stand on professional athletes honoring the flag and the national anthem? What detailed nuance and what extended extrapolation were they hoping to gain insight on with their focused and intelligent queries?
John Roberts asked if the president “went too far” in calling players “Sons of bitches” in his original remarks. Gee, one has to wonder if Roberts already knew the answer to that question before he asked it, right?
NBC’s Hallie Jackson asked if the president “has a problem with the first amendment” “Um… yeah Hallie, I’m glad you asked that. The president does have a problem with the right to free speech and he wants it rescinded. Especially considering a reporter like you is so ignorant about the first amendment that you actually think that a private business has no right to put certain restrictions on their employees (like football players) while at work and in uniform representing that company, next question from you morons?” was not Huckabee-Sanders’ answer, but I sure wish it was.
ABC’s Cecelia Vega asked Huckabee-Sanders if the president thought there were “very fine people” who were kneeling this Sunday. You know, that was a call back to the president’s remarks about the protests in Charlotsville when he declared there were “very fine people on both sides.”
NBC’s Peter Alexander pointed out that the president tweeted more about the NFL over the weekend versus the plight of Puerto Rico in the wake of the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean. His question to Huckabee-Sanders: What message does that send (about the president’s priorities)?
And there was more. But Alexander’s question sort of brings it all home, doesn’t it? In his question about the president’s priorities, he illuminates the media’s priorities as well. Rather than ask the White House about the president’s plan for (if he has a plan) the people of Puerto Rico and his stance on some kind of federal aid for the US territory, Alexander instead wanted to debate Huckabee-Sanders on the president’s focus in his tweets. The question was not meant to gather information about Puerto Rico, it was meant to embarrass and shame the White House.
Decker is right, in a way, that the press corps can’t help but to focus on the president’s tweets and remarks about polarizing peripheral issues. But don’t make the mistake that they are pursuing the news and information that is most relevant to the American people when they almost singularly focus on these things.
They have a choice, and their choice is to hammer away on these issues. They can’t help it because they can’t help themselves and their hostility toward the president. In the long run, a press conference dominated by NFL players not standing for the national anthem rather than another failed attempt to fix the health insurance mess in this country actually plays into Trump’s narrative and helps distract the American people from some difficult and serious issues facing this White House and the country.
And, I suspect, the president knows that.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.