Sahale Greenwood ‘21 is a communications and political science major and a marketing and communications intern with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
After four years of unprecedented presidential media relations the country is wondering what White House coverage will look like as America turns to more traditional leadership. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, in conjunction with the National Press Club Journalism Institute, hosted a thought-provoking discussion with Politico White House Correspondent Anita Kumar, former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers ‘83, and longtime CBS White House Correspondent Bill Plante, and moderated by Subbu Vincent, director, journalism and media ethics at the Ethics Center. The three predict that Biden’s press will return to more classical models of professionalism and verification but some aspects of press coverage are forever changed, including social media.
There is constant tension over White House press coverage between the White House officials who want to control the message and reporters who want to write a newsworthy or attention-grabbing story. Myers, having experienced the president’s perspective, said, in regards to press conferences, “The questions are superficial, they are scandal oriented, they are not meaningful news, they are not about the things the White House is really spending most of its time on, or what the president’s agenda is.” (32:58-33:30)
Conversely, reporters want more access and transparency with regular briefings. Plante put it best when he said, “There will always be times for any administration when they want to be economical with the truth. In other words, to tell it, but just enough of it or in such a way that it doesn’t reflect as badly as it otherwise might. You have to expect that. It is up to us [reporters] to pay attention and do what we can to get the whole truth.” (36:48- 37:15)
Despite the inevitable tension between the White House’s desires to control the flow of information and reporters’ desire to have total access, all three panelists agreed that the Biden administration presents a moment of hope for both facts and transparency.
“The Trump administration is a whole other beast,” said Myers. “I do not think that model will be repeated … I think you will see a much more traditional model, a much more traditional rhythm in the briefing room, much more regular briefings, and I think much more credible information coming from ‘the podium.’ (9:20-9:52)
Kumar added, “I don’t think we are going to hear the next president talking about the media in a disparaging way.” (11:05-11:11) The Biden administration has already shown it plans to be more scripted and controlled with less access to the president. This, Kumar said, could be jarring to reporters who have only covered the Trump administration and are used to seeing the president daily.
One thing that will not change with the coming administration is the power of social media. Before the Obama administration, social media did not play as large a role in politics or journalism. Reporters would never tweet their news because they were saving it for their story. Now, journalists tweet all the time in an effort to report the facts first. Instead of competing with published articles, journalists are now competing with tweets. This, combined with social media’s algorithms for filter bubbles, has fundamentally changed social media’s role in the political realm.
“The role of social media is so dramatic,” Myers stated, “ because not only do people choose their source, the sources choose them. In social media if I click on a story about how the election was stolen, they will direct twenty more stories to me that reinforce that perspective.” (46:45- 47:00) Human nature looks for confirmation of prior beliefs; it is no accident these platforms employ algorithms to do exactly that. Social media has become so ingrained in the process of disseminating information that new models of presidential communication will have to be created in the coming term.
“I think we can get back to something that resembles the old normal,” Plante said, “but that’s not good enough. We need to do better. And we need to do better by listening and explaining and being more transparent.” (58:20-58:35) He emphasized accuracy, verification, and transparency as being three factors crucial in re-establishing trust and truth especially when facing a country where millions of people believe a false narrative about who won the election.
Myers echoed this sentiment: “I am hopeful that the Biden administration will restore a higher level of expectations about facts and the kind of information that comes from the White House briefing room and the White House social media accounts and the individuals who work there.” (58:47-59).