Any discussion of the presidency and the press in our digital age must eventually reckon with President Trump and Twitter. But to put the current incumbent's habitual use of his favorite medium into context, moderator Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center, opened by asking the panel of former White House communications professionals and journalists about the most significant changes he or she had experienced.
Don Baer, communications director for Bill Clinton, pointed to the explosion of media outlets, the fluctuating definition of a journalist, and the constant barrage of information coming at constituents, primarily through social media.
“When I started in the White House, we had one cable network: MSNBC. And if you remember, the MS stood for Microsoft,” Baer said. “I’m privileged to be the very first person who ever did a live chat from the West Wing. And that was on the night MSNBC launched—I was the only person left around.”
From Baer's early 90s starting point, there emerged a proliferation of cable news outlets. And the creation of FOX News in the late 1990’s radically changed the dynamic. Online, the cost to deliver news and opinion to a nationwide audience dropped exponentially, changing the media business forever. Everyday citizens began to launch their own feeds through a growing array of social media outlets. These media also delivered more narrowly defined audiences, leaving citizens with a growing set of tools to validate their own worldviews and disregard those of others.
Dan Bartlett spoke of the introducing two official White House bloggers behalf of President George W. Bush. Before anything was posted, he needed to the approval of the president and White House lawyers. inside. “Mr. President,” remembers telling Bush with the bloggers in tow, “I need your permission to allow these two people to make mistakes on your behalf.”
Today, this kind of caution is anathema to the commander-in-chief, and Bartlett pointed out that video and mobile communication skills—rapidly deployed—are more important than ever before. “There’s no such thing as a news cycle anymore, it’s just continuous,” Bartlett said. “Risk-adverse has clearly gone out the window with the institution now, from that perspective. “
Pivoting to a focus on President Trump, Ayesha Rascoe, a White House reporter for NPR, noted the current dearth of presidential press conferences and video messages. Instead, Rascoe said, journalists now need to pay 24-7 attention to their feeds. “It became this thing where you had to be on Twitter to know what was going on. If anything big happens, you will see Tweets before you see anything else.”
Rascoe also lamented the disappearance of the daily briefing between press members and the White House. “I think that what the daily briefing did offer was a time where you could ask questions about a wide variety of topics, not just necessarily the news of the day, and you could dig in on certain topics and press the White House for answers,” Rascoe said. “That also forced a White House to have to come up with answers and to have one voice speaking.”
The panel agreed that Trump has utilized Twitter in smart and strategic ways. The president’s wields tremendous influence there by combining his massive reach with the ability to insert himself into virtually any conversation. After he Tweeted about the Kentucky Derby, Rascoe noted, “every story about the Derby had lines about President Trump."
The panelists also agreed that the proliferation of sources made the truth harder to find. “Being an informed citizen has become a whole lot harder—and that is one of the great, great challenges that we’re in,” Baer said.
As they wrapped up, the panelists reminded the audience of the importance of reading, checking preported authorities, and seeking out facts from multiple places. And, Bartlett said, brace yourself for rough-and-tumble press cycle during 2020 election.
“The media need to cover more about what is happening rather than what they hope will be happening,” Baer said.