Checkpoint: This Needs More Spice

In recent weeks, the White House Press Briefings have become terser, less informative (a surprise to those who thought it couldn’t), and incredibly, less televised.

I say incredibly because anyone unlucky enough to be sentient during the Trump administration will know that Sean Spicer’s press briefings are a must watch. It isn’t the news organizations that have decided to quash the briefings. After all, any randomly chosen minute of Sean Spicer speaking provides enough sound bites for the 24-hour news cycle to gorge on for a week. It is rather, the White House that has declared some briefings “off limits” to live broadcasting. 

Such an obvious maneuver arouses an immediate litany of suspicions. Indeed these shortened or “off camera” briefings often take place on heightened news days, such as the release of the Republican health-care plan, or when President Trump admitted he had not in fact recorded conversations with former FBI Director James Comey.

It could be that these brief briefings are the result of Spicer having discovered the literal meaning of the word. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Of course Shakespeare never met Sean Spicer, nor, it’s safe to presume, has Spicer ever encountered Shakespeare. On that note, perhaps Spicer decided the prospect of having to read his briefings would turn the public's attention elsewhere. In Sean’s defense, the prospect of reading has always turned him away so it’s no wonder he thought the strategy sound.

One of the most predictable, and thus frightening things for which the Trump administration can be counted on is its complete ignorance of history. In this case, the Trump administration is unaware of a lesson taught throughout history, and especially American history - prohibitions don’t work. Prohibitions only serve to excite loopholes – loopholes being the most intoxicating substance to the American mind. In that noble vein, and with cameras and audio devices prohibited at briefings, CNN decided to send their court sketch artist to record the events. The irreverent sketches were of little use of course, other than to confirm that Spicer was as much of a caricature as we all thought.

We all catch at least a portion of the televised briefings, be it on our phones, our news feeds, at the gym, in the paper, or as most consume them, via Saturday Night Live. For many it is easy to be pessimistic when the public narrative is reduced to such a dismal level of charade. For a moment, I too suffer this pessimism, but then I find myself reminded of a famous scene from Julius Caesar, in which a Soothsayer calls out to Caesar from the crowd. Caesar then asks “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” to which the soothsayer portentously replies, “Beware the ides of March.”

This makes me optimistic not because I think Trump as Caesar, as I said in a previous column he’s more like a petulant Caligula. Nor am I making the mistake of Johnny Depp, Katy Griffin and even The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, on which I wrote another column, by apparently implying Trump’s assassination. Rather, I’m made optimistic because despite the press’ faults, it will be from the “press” that the call spelling out Trump’s demise will come.

It is ironic considering the now closed nature of these briefings that the scene of the play in question is set in “A public space.” But perhaps this irony is not lost on the Trump administration. They must know they are not particularly good at speaking to the press, being sticklers for facts and ethics as they are. Nor is the press taking kindly to being categorized and pigeonholed as biased or fake news; the administration must know they are not particularly good at this war of words either, being devoid of truth, wit and decency as they are.

The administration must then know that they are not particularly good at anything, other than convincing the desperate and helpless that their woes are the fault of conveniently contrived, superficial and nostalgic enemies. It is therefore in their own interest to mute and censor the “public space” in which they continue to embarrass themselves. The clear strategy of Donald Trump, and a common strategy in U.S. politics generally, is to establish the false-dichotomy in the public mind that, as Isaac Asimov put it: "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." In the context of this strategy, censoring the press briefings can only be described as a good decision on Trump's behalf. I guess there really is a first for everything.

The statistics tell the tale: Spicer and his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders only held four on-camera briefings in the month of June. That average of a single audience per week is down from the several televised weekly briefings that were held earlier in the administration. Several per week had been the norm for much of the last twenty-five years.

When questioned about this notable drop-off, Spicer said “It’s great for us to come out here and have a substantive discussion about policies,” but that “I don’t think that the be-all and end-all is whether it’s on television or not.” It is slightly disconcerting when a representative of the Trump administration starts talking about the “end-all”. One wonders if they know something we don’t, and if they do, President Trump would be right to minimize Spicer’s exposure to possible circumstance of blabbering. However, that doesn’t stop the President doing it himself on social media.

The White House suggests that the nature of televised briefings encourages the press to “showboat for the cameras”, as the New York Times put it. It is typical of the Trump administration to deem the asking of pressing questions as ‘showboating.’ I will of course eat my words when a career journalist from a distinguished publication dressed in a sparkling sequin dress bursts from the press gallery with backup dancers in tow to ask Sean Spicer, through interpretive dance, just why the President threatened the FBI Director he had just fired, and then admitted to having no evidence to support the threat?

Expectedly, the press suggest that the administration doesn’t want their press secretary captured on video dodging questions, or making gaffes. This position is of course equally absurd as Trump’s presidency proves that video evidence of that very practice and much worse does little to tarnish Trump’s political career. In such a time, nothing inspires more self-hatred than the apparent truism – any press is good press.

In reality, little comes from White House Press briefings. Its importance is largely democratic, which is to say symbolic. However, I find myself asking what a Mid-Western white woman at a Mexican restaurant never would - more Spice please. It is our task as sentient beings to ensure the administration is as open to ridicule as possible. It is ridicule and criticism that most strikingly destabilize the notion that ignorance and knowledge share an equal playing field. It remains essential that the public forum be accessible as the frontline of discussion between the government and the Fourth Estate. What the other three estates are up to is anyone’s guess.