ABC News Radio (bless their little cotton taxpayer-funded socks) re-broadcast the entire first briefing conducted by the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. It was a gob-smacker.
Rather than announce anything or take questions, Spicer — Trump’s direct representative to the media — delivered a hectoring, thin-skinned, petty and inflammatory attack on the media and the work of some individual journalists.
This was an astonishingly stupid way to begin what already looks like becoming a four-year war between the US press and the White House. The media might have to endure losing the odd battle along the way, but as every veteran politician knows, they never lose the war.
Team Trump aren’t dumb, but they are certainly aggressive — and arrogant. They seem drunk with the instant authority and power that’s been so recently bestowed upon them. And like all cheap drunks they say things they will soon regret.
Spicer’s outburst was a deliberate departure from the traditional and expected functions of the White House press secretary. Their job is to brief the correspondents on the daily appointment schedule of POTUS and to provide a sourced outline of the President’s quotable positions on the issues of the day — everything from nuclear weapons to the Thanksgiving turkey.
But what Spicer delivered, instead, was a bilious broadside aimed at the credibility of the journalists in front of him in that small, stuffy room. It was unvarnished provocation.
For their part it is important here to understand the fundamental difference between the role and duties of the White House press gang and our own gallery correspondents in Canberra. Our gallery slaves report — or are expected to report — on the whole process of federal government, of which the deeds and words of the Prime Minister form just one part.
But the White House corps covers the President only, and, as the world is quickly learning, the immense executive powers of America’s president are quite separate from those of the Senate and Congress.
What POTUS does or says every day is hard news, and his press secretary is the vital conduit to get that word out to the daily media, with whatever spin the White House inner circle prescribes.
Spicer, presumably with Trump’s approval, has now turned that all that upside down. He’s giving perhaps the world’s most exclusive cohort of political reporters a nasty Washington version of Media Watch, garnished with persecution paranoia but none of the light humour normally associated with these briefings.
In fact, he’s spoiling for a fight. This was his opening salvo:
“There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I’m here to tell you it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.”
It is as if Team Trump still haven’t accepted that the bare-knuckle tactics of the campaign are behind them, and that they are now being paid to help run a very large and complex democracy. Dog fights with the media should be off the agenda.
Yet towards the end of his extraordinary broadside Spicer could snarl that the media were so hopelessly inaccurate and biased that they were on notice that Trump might sidestep them completely.
“As long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement he will take his message directly to the American people.”
Quite how he proposes to do this without the media’s help is something of a mystery. Simplistic slogans may look powerful on social media but they don’t get anything done. Effective government will always require the communication of policies that cannot properly be explained or justified within the 140 characters of a Twitter post.
More interesting, from the standpoint of professional journalism, is what the response of the White House press corps should be. My first reaction, while listening to Spicer’s tirade, was to shout at the radio: “Why don’t you all just get up and walk out?” His attack was so contemptuous that surely any journalist who takes pride in their job would refuse to remain in the room.
But, on reflection, mine was a rather Australian response.
The awe and respect with which the office of President is treated in America is close to unconditional. A nation that can still describe a bumbling B-movie actor with early onset Alzheimers as one of their “great” presidents doesn’t blow raspberries at the incoming Commander in Chief — even if it’s Donald Trump.
Canberra is an altogether more cynical, less reverential, working environment. Our Prime Ministers have none of the executive powers of a US president, and their rank alone earns them little automatic respect from the media. It has to be earned, as it should be.
And part of that process is the understanding that politicians in Australia — including the Prime Minister — will do their own media conferences and respond to direct questions.