Tuesday, February 28, 2006

As Katharine Seelye writes in an interesting (if not exactly groundbreaking) article in the New York Times, the value of televised White House press briefings has become... relatively slight.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies relations between the president and the press, said the institutional relationship was 'pretty tattered.' She said the tensions were hardly new, but that the press was becoming more defensive in part because of the constant scrutiny under the lights.
I certainly understand that neither side is particularly anxious to abandon televised press briefings altogether; as the article says, the briefings provide a great outlet for the White House, and they're a swell chance for the publicity-starved (ho!) White House press corps to get some screen time. But without a doubt, the briefings' value is wearing thin.

So here's a thought (and I'd imagine I'm hardly the first one to have it, but the beauty of The Blog That No One Reads is that I can post nearly anything I'd like and continue to tell myself that I came up with it first): keep the number of press briefings where it is currently (maybe four a week, when the President's in town), but sharply cut back the television coverage. Once a week - say, every Friday - there'll be a televised briefing, during which Scott McClellan can dissemble, David Gregory can rant, and Helen Thomas can... be Helen Thomas, to their hearts' content. And then for the rest of the week, the press corps can go back to actual reporting, and the White House can go back to speaking like actual human beings.

For a while, at least (if not in the long run), I'm guessing that once-a-week televised briefings would greatly increase the overall exposure that each briefing gets. As it is, the cable news channels cover them live only if (A) there's something controversial being discussed and (B) the blond anchor on duty has run out of mind-numbing human-interest stories. As a result, the average audience for one of these things is a group of maybe 50,000 people nationwide, 35,000 of whom are policy wonks and 45,000 of whom are utterly nuts (see what I did there, with the math? Wasn't that clever?). If the news channels were to show the once-weeklies, the number of people seeing at least one briefing a week would increase by a factor of about a hundred.

Plus, if there's any administration that can withstand the lack-of-transparency complaints that could come with a move like this, this is the one. And in order to further counteract this particular negative motivation, I hereby vow1 that no matter what else I may write, I will not criticize the Bush administration for televising fewer press briefings. So let's snap to it, White House Press Office. Take yourselves off TV.

1 - Fine print: all vows are nonbinding.

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