A Press Room for the 21st Century

By Brett Dowling (Slow Thinker)

The Trump Presidency has been criticized relentlessly—and in many cases, I would say, rightly so—since it bulldozed into the White House but three weeks ago. However, there does seem to be a discernable aversion, at least among certain circles, to giving this Administration credit where credit is due, to highlighting and celebrating policy changes made by the Administration that are particularly sensible and efficacious.

Coming off the bizarre January 21st “press conference,” in which Press Secretary Sean Spicer made the much-disputed claim that Trump’s was the most-watched Inauguration ever, it seemed unlikely that anything positive could emerge out of Trump’s media relations team. However, in a hardly-reported move—ironic, given the profession of those in the room when the change was revealed—the Press Secretary invited reporters from across the country to ask questions of him via Skype for the first time ever last Wednesday. These so-called “Skype Seats” created by the Trump Administration in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room create a degree of openness, innovation, and diversity that should give any supporter of genuine press freedom rejoice.

This move is historic for a number of reasons. For one, it harnesses the truly equalizing powers of technology to create a more inclusive press-presidential relationship. The news industry is struggling financially, and this technological innovation allows organizations that might otherwise lack the financial resources to travel to Washington, DC from their bases across the country the ability to inquire as to the President’s activities, regardless of their financial circumstances and their geographic location. This is undoubtedly a win for those who value a truly dispersed, non-monopolized media environment.

More importantly, however, is the fact that this move will democratize the presidential-press relationship, making it more responsive to the issues that really matter to ordinary and diverse Americans. Presently, the news media that is meant to hold the President to account is astonishingly homogenous. A glance down the list of the White House Press Corps reveals that the group is alarmingly coastal, well-heeled, and urban. In the ultimate move of unfairness and elitism, large media organizations are given the benefit of “priority seating” in the news room; nearly guaranteed positions in the first two rows of the briefing room ensure they are far more likely to be picked to ask a question. When such a narrowly defined segment of society is afforded the exclusive privilege of directly questioning the White House Press Secretary on a daily basis, the American people lose.

Last Wednesday’s rollout of the Skype Seats—albeit slightly awkward in its execution—all but revealed the gap in interests between these entrenched national, elite media organizations and the more humble, regional outlets that “Skyped in.” While the traditional media folk continued to question Spicer about petty Senate political squabbles (how does Chuck Schumer feel about being called a clown by the President on Twitter?) and Supreme Court hypotheticals (did Hardiman ever actually leave Pennsylvania?), the “Skype Chair” media members asked questions that, though on the surface may have appeared somewhat provincial, hit on big issues that have and will continue to directly affect average Americans in their hometowns across the country.

To start things off, Kim Kalunian of WPRI-12, asked about how and when Trump would withdraw funding from sanctuary cities. Not so unorthodox, but nevertheless a matter on many people’s minds. Natalie Herbick from Fox 8 Cleveland inquired about how Trump specifically planned to revitalize deindustrialized cities such as hers, a matter near and dear to many rust-belters’ hearts. Lars Larsen, of the Lars Larson Show centered in Portland, Oregon, asked whether Trump planned to return federally-owned land (“the federal government is the biggest landlord in America”!) back to the people, and whether he would “tell the forest service to start logging our forests aggressively again, to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the treasury, and to not spend three and a half billion dollars fighting forest fires”—certainly the sort of quirky question that may never have reached the President’s Press Secretary under the old regime, but that nevertheless clearly mattered to his many listeners and an important question for those to consider beyond his base. Finally, Jeff Jobe of Jobe Publishing, centered in south-central Kentucky, asked how long it would take for Trump to restore the coal industry in his home-region of Appalachia, following a series of politicians who Jobe claimed had not only “forgotten” about the region’s inhabitants, but had “turned on” them. The interspersed questions were admittedly a welcome reprieve from the generally-predictable lines of inquiry of the physically-present, who overwhelmingly sought to mine Spicer for the President’s opinions on the DC-centric political “hot-takes” of the day.

If we learned anything from this past election, it must be that America hardly knows itself anymore. The socioeconomic and geographic divides in this country are immense. Much of the anger in this country, I suspect, stems from the fact that so many view national institutions as entirely detached and unresponsive—exclusive by design, echo chambers in their own right. Given the way press briefings have been run, the elite media is not immune from these accusations. It is unclear whether the questions asked by the Skypers will influence the President or the general public in any meaningful way. However, the addition of these Skype Seats to the Brady Room is a particularly productive step forward, because it begins to allow so-called “forgotten Americans”—largely rural and non-coastal voters—to engage in and contribute to what should be a truly national conversation.

Our unprecedented access to technology—cheap flights, Skype, the internet—should allow us to know one another better than ever before. But our distances and divisions have grown. This development, which finally brings one of our political institutions (sort of) into the 21st century, is evidently much overdue. There is yet more work to be done in employing technology to heal our divides, but for this President and those to come, the addition of Skype Seats to presidential press briefings will undoubtedly provide greater accountability and more diverse and representative scrutiny. The President and his team should be commended for this move.

Here's how author Brett Dowling suggests that you can get involved: Share your approval of the White House's Skype Seats on their website.

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