In our modern era, despite the demise of print pubs, there are now more choices for individuals to keep up with news than ever before. Unfortunately, because of minimal enterprise reporting, what viewers get is “pack journalism” reports, containing the same talking points with little variation.
As a former reporter and editor prior to my tenure at Burson-Marsetller, I admired and tried to emulate aggressive reporters who wouldn’t participate in “pack journalism” and looked for stories that were different from the norm. (Twice during interviews I was physically threatened for asking questions which upset the individuals I was questioning. Once I actually had to run to safety while the person I was interviewing, a football coach, was held back by team members in the locker room.)
Today, “pack journalism” is the standard. The reason for this is because of the acquiescence of beat journalists. This can be viewed daily at the staged post-game press conferences after baseball games and at the once-daily live White House press briefings. The result is that regardless of what newspapers, radio or TV stations an individual prefers, the stories are all the same.
By attending these staged performances — instead of boycotting them — the press acts as parrots instead of reporters (There are notable exceptions: the New York Times and Washington Post’s continuing enterprise reporting and Newsweek’s pre-election political coverage. USA Today also reports outside the pack.)
Even though it wasn’t a secret that Trump was unhappy with the White House’s press briefings, substituting gaggles for the usual briefings, and then making them even more difficult to cover by banning recordings, little outrage from the compliant beat political reporters and their editors and producers ensued.
Several reporters spent a few minutes speaking out against the diminishing number of live on-camera briefings. But instead of the media joining together in a concerted effort to publicly condemn the White House restrictions as a tool to keep unfavorable news from the public, the new normal was quickly and meekly accepted.
The sad part is, there’s an easy way for political reporters to skip the staged and largely scripted press briefings while staying abreast of what’s happening: limit those attending to press pools, so in the unlikely event that actual news is revealed, the pool will notify other reporters, who will then do their own stories and hopefully do some additional reporting so they will contain information other than the official propaganda speakouts. Of course, cable TV networks would never agree to a pool camera feed. They need footage showing their talent being excited about reporting pap.
As never before, journalists are under consistent and demeaning attacks from official government spokespersons, led by Trump, popular right wing talk and TV shows, Huckabee Smith and Kellyanne Conway. They blindly defend Trump despite his romance with Putin, who has jailed and killed journalists who wrote stories upsetting him.
Journalists having a low standing among the public is not new. What is new is that the President calls every story he doesn’t like “fake news” and his backers believe him.
But Trump and his lackeys, while dangerous to our democracy and a free press, are relatively new media enemies. By rolling over and participating in the made-for-propaganda news briefings, instead of telling their editors and producers “no story here,” today’s cable TV beat reporters, unlike those at major print pubs, act more like Trump PR people by daily disguising managed pap as news worthy of print.
The White House briefers and the cable TV beat reporters are in a symbiotic relationship. Each needs the other to do their jobs. TV reporters, in particular, need footage showing them asking questions, the great majority of which are not answered. The most frequent answers from Huckabee Smith (and Spicer before her) are that “the President’s tweets speak for themselves” and “I haven’t discussed that with the President,” which is Huckabee Smith’s fall back answer. At least Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House director of communications, will bring a new template answer to the briefings: “I love the guy.”
The only way for true Q & A sessions to return — missing from the briefings even before Trump was elected — is for reporters to boycott the briefings, rely on pool reports and have the gumption to say, “no story here.” Until then, journalists only have to look in the mirror to see their worst enemies: themselves.
Arthur Solomon was a senior VP at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on PR projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.