The White House press corps is now, as it always has been, both one of the most important parts of American journalism and one of the most frustrating parts of American journalism. At its most basic, the job of White House reporters is to hold the most powerful people in the United States accountable, ask the tough questions, and get answers for the rest of us. This means that asking the right questions is incredibly important for the very basic reason that you and I and millions of other Americans don’t get to do that. The corollary is that asking the wrong questions—and doing so on live TV— presents your fellow citizens with one of the most painful experiences possible.
There are many people who deserve blame for the past few weeks of misguided outrage over whether journalists and athletes should be allowed to state and protest the obvious—that the leader of the United States is in every sense that matters a white supremacist, elected on a white-supremacist platform, and working to make that platform a reality. (Presidents keep their promises.) But part of that blame goes to the reporters who are expected to have our backs—the White House press corps. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as White House press secretary, has one job: Take whatever these reporters ask her, dismiss it, and then turn it into a chance to throw a piece of anger-infused hate bait at Donald Trump’s base while, if she can, also making reporters look like idiots. She is not there to deliver facts; she is not there to give meaningful answers; she is not there to give anything a reasonable person would call an answer. She’s there to turn press conferences into Make America Great Again campaign rallies.
And hot damn if some of the reporters in the room haven’t been helping her out.
This started two weeks ago, when the Washington Post’s David Nakamura decided to bring up Jemele Hill’s tweets at a White House press conference. He committed the common journalistic sin of asking a question that was too damn long and included too many tangents. Sanders did what flacks do—ignore the part of the question that she didn’t want to answer and hone in on the introduction. That fit her goal.
You mentioned a couple times today, sort of, emphasized diversity in the West Wing. You talked about the president being very clear after Charlottesville in denouncing all hate. I just want to read a comment from an influential African-American sportscaster from ESPN yesterday.
He then went on to read Hill’s tweets aloud and ask, “Why do you think? Do you have a reaction to that and is the president aware of that comment and ...”
The questions trailed off. Sanders ignored every part of the question except the part she liked—“What do you think?”—and called what Hill did a “fireable offense.” You can watch the entire exchange below; the resulting commentary was as mind-numbing as expected.
Apparently, the takeaway from this exchange was not, “Stop asking long-winded, imprecise questions to Sanders on this matter, because she will just turn them into Make America Great Again talking points.”
A few days later, CBS correspondent Julianna Goldman asked this question:
The president today tweeted out that he wants to see ESPN apologize for what he called untruths. By him saying that, though, does that mean that he’s willing to apologize for his birtherism claims that he had called on for years?
There was no way Sanders was going to honestly address the president’s history of birtherism; by leading with the ESPN tweet, Goldman gave Sanders an out. She took it and turned a legitimate question about the current president’s role into shameful propaganda meant solely to discredit his predecessor, the country’s first black president. It was a soundbite for every Breitbart reader to share with glee. ESPN, she said, is “hypocritical.”
I thought that after two failures, reporters would figure out that they were doing just as much—if not more—harm as good with these longwinded, imprecise, sort-of-about-ESPN-and-sports but-sort-of-not questions. Then came today. I understand the urge to bring up the protests by athletes over the weekend in regard to the president’s comments, but I still do not understand how anyone expected poorly-phrased questions to elicit anything useful from Sanders. I do not understand why anyone expects her to give an honest answer, period. I do not understand why she is treated as if she were an actor in good faith when her whole job is to do two things: make reporters look like clowns, and rile the base of white supremacists who put her boss in office.
The lead-off reporter asked Sanders a fairly long question that ended with the president calling athletes who protest during the anthem sons of bitches:
Clearly the president has strong views on whether or not players in professional sports teams should stand for the national anthem. Given the response that the president has gotten over the last 48 hours, even from Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, who believes that what the president said on Friday night was very divisive, does the president regret at all describing these players who take a knee for the national anthem as s.o.b.s. who should be fired.
Sanders didn’t answer the question, and instead gave a long, seemingly (and probably) pre-planned soliloquy about how this is really about defending the flag and how great America is. So the reporter tried again, squeezing in the follow up, “Did the president go too far in referring to these players as s.o.b.s who should be fired?” Sanders, barely flustered, dismissed that with a lie that this was really just about the American flag. As reporters pressed, each time trying to bring it back to Trump calling peaceful protestors sons of bitches, Sanders doubled down. It was just about the flag and the president being “for” something; that was all she was going to say and nobody was going to get her off-message.
The entire press conference, which is truly painful unless you want to get a doctorate in the dark art of ignoring reporter questions and concerns, is below:
And yet, dammit, they kept trying with long-winded questions that backed into the implication that the president might be a white supremacist. (One issue is that due to the flawed logic of “impartiality,” by which the truth is fixed at a point equidistant between what a politician’s flacks say and what his most respectable critics say, they can’t ask questions that presuppose he is even for the sake of argument.) So, for instance, Sanders was asked this:
When Colin Kaepernick says that his protest is about fighting police brutality, fighting racial disparity, racial injustice, you’re not taking him at his word. You’re saying that the focus has long since moved on. But when white supremacists say that their protest is about heritage not hate, the president does take them at their word. So why is there this disparity about who gets to decide what protest is about?
The answer to this is pretty obvious: Because a white supremacist is in the White House! Sanders, to the surprise of no one, didn’t say that. She lobbed a ready-made meme out into white-supremacist social media, instead. And suddenly, it’s as if what started two weeks ago was just on a perpetual loop of poorly phrased questions begetting MAGA-approved soundbites.
With the White House and a powerful allied noise machine casting doubt on the very theoretical legitimacy of a free press, someone—you—might say it’s best to leave these idiots alone and simply blame Sanders, the paid liar. There is an argument to be made that I am doing her work by assailing those who are on the front lines of protecting our democracy. Perhaps. But the power of the press has always relied, in part, on the press policing the press. By taking care of our tribe—kicking out the plagiarists, openly addressing the lack of diversity in newsrooms, even running corrections—the press continues to make the case in ways great and small that for as much as the founders were wrong about, they were right about us, and that those who want to regulate what we do should continue to go fuck themselves.
And so it’s incumbent on everyone who’s ever made their living asking questions to point out that some of these people have no idea what they’re doing.
You, dear reader, do not have the time or access to personally hold powerful people accountable for the harm they bring upon you. That is why other people do; they are doing so to serve you and the rest of the public, and that is why they are supposed to be conscientious and not repeatedly make obvious, elementary mistakes that serve the interests of the people they’re supposed to interrogating! Bad questions are, or can be, human errors. I’ve been in press scrums; it’s a tough job and it happens. But question after question made by person after person supposedly at the top of their profession has made clear that the most charitable interpretation is that some these people are just inept. A man who can’t bring himself to condemn actual neo-Nazis is in the White House and trying to enact a white-supremacist platform! Now is not the time to lob his servant easily-swatted softballs. Do enough of that, and you end up not just looking like a clown, you end up with this: