The latest norm-smashing, petulant, dictatorship-worthy salvo of the upcoming Trump Administration is the threat to push the White House press corps out of the White House. The story has all the hair-raising details you might expect from a preening bunch of anonymous alt-right types who disrespect decades of tradition and see the press as a fifth column, with senior officials calling the press corps “the opposition party” and promising to “take back the press room.” It’s not clear whether this means populating the room with only state-sanctioned writers from Breitbart and Russia Today, or whether it’s part of an interior redecorating scheme to Make the White House Great Again.
Either way, though, ending the White House press corps might not be the worst thing. Certainly the Trump team’s motivations for doing it are ugly. But it might actually be beneficial at a structural level.
The theoretical reason for a White House press corps is to be able to ask questions directly of the President and his communications team, because otherwise news coming out of the White House would simply be unfiltered propaganda. When conservatives complain about having to bypass the “media filter” they assume that the press is acting as a propagandist barring accurate information from getting through. In reality, the press serves as an investigative organ to force information out that might not otherwise be forthcoming, and to fact-check propaganda coming from government officials.
But it’s not clear that the White House press corps has actually been fulfilling either of these functions as it currently exists. It has been a long time since a White House press conference has generated any real news or headlines greater than stenography of White House talking points by themselves would have done. White House reporters almost never force unexpected answers through uncomfortable questions, and they aren’t exactly known for accountability and fact-checking.
This isn’t entirely the reporters’ fault. The high-school style environment of the White House press corps structurally leads to poor journalism. Getting access to the room and being called on for questions requires keeping the White House happy enough with you to actually call on you. The competition in the room to shout out questions ahead of competitors and colleagues means that if the White House doesn’t like a question it can always refuse to answer and call on the next questioner–and there isn’t enough camaraderie in the room for each journalist to insist on answers to the same question. It’s an environment almost designed for bad news, more journalism-as-spectacle than actual journalism.
Putting the dreary spectacle to bed might be mutually salutary both for the press and the public. The Trump Administration will be actively hostile to the press, and the press should see itself as hostile in return. Journalists from major media organizations would likely do better reporting separated from the high-school-cafeteria environment of the briefing room, and would be better advised to seek out leaks from disgruntled Republicans than from cozy access granted by being a good “team player.”
Mainstream networks would also gain credibility by establishing themselves as investigative and accountability-seeking organizations, while letting the likes of Breitbart serve as organs of state propaganda. If the Trump Administration crashes and burns from its own incompetence, organizations that played a friendly, access-seeking role will look bad in hindsight just as they did with the Bush Administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War. If the Trump Administration turns into a would-be dictatorship of our dystopian nightmares, then it would be better for news organizations worth the name to go down fighting rather than try to protect the norms of a bygone era.
In short, it might be a win-win for the press. By pushing the press corps out of the White House, Trump will look like the petty tyrant he is, and news organizations will gain credibility and better journalism in the bargain.