Advice for White House reporters from the Supreme Court press corps.

Advice for Bedraggled White House Reporters From the Supreme Court Press Corps

Advice for Bedraggled White House Reporters From the Supreme Court Press Corps

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 30 2017 1:48 PM

Unsolicited Advice for the White House Press Corps

Film the press briefings, ignore the spin, and revel in your nerdom.

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White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers a White House daily briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room on Thursday.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In this, what is somehow the fifth month of the Donald Trump administration, the White House’s official spokespeople have decided it’s about time to stop taking reporters’ questions on camera. Instead, they’ve taken to releasing audio of their ever more dada press conferences only at the conclusion of said press conferences, which makes for fairly terrible television. White House correspondents have responded to the blackout by taking photos of their socks (CNN’s Jim Acosta), posting still photos of spokespeople, sending in sketch artists to make the whole place look like a mob trial (again, CNN), and grousing at the spokespeople as they attempt to spokesperson-ify (again, Acosta).

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

For Acosta and his correspondent kind, this shocking lack of transparency from an already locked-down White House reeks of an authoritarian crackdown. For those of us who’ve spent our journalistic careers covering the Supreme Court, the amount of access afforded by the secretive, truth-challenged, hiding-in-the-bushes Trump White House looks like a dream sequence about government transparency.

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In my almost two decades of covering the high court, I have become accustomed to a press policy that affords access to only a handful of reporters, only to oral arguments, which I must cover with a pen and a notepad, having been robbed—by way of a magnetometer at the entrance—of any recording devices, photographic equipment, and Apple watches. Audio recordings of these oral arguments are offered to the public only on Friday evenings, when the press cannot find any use for them (thus the advent of the Amicus podcast!), and video or even still photos of public sessions of the court are made available to the press only, well, never. Not ever. The justices do not give press conferences; the press officers do not give press conferences; a single, weird, Brady Bunch–style photo of the robed justices serves as the lone photographic image of the court all year, and the answer to most truly interesting inquiries directed at the public information officers is a resounding “no comment.” In short, we dream of the kind of made-for-TV moments provided by Jim Acosta’s socks and Sean Spicer in the shrubbery.

So while our hearts go out to our brethren down the street in the White House press room, we are forced to remind them that there is no constitutionally protected right to televise Sean Spicer and that this is all a bracing reminder that while we like to believe in robust press freedoms in America, many of those freedoms are merely norms, customs, and common practices that can be rescinded at any time. Those of us who’ve spent years covering the Courtroom of Dorian Gray, a place in which the justices get older while technology stays the same age, have learned some tricks for covering a branch of government that has locked out TV cameras for decades for the very same reason Sean Spicer locks them out now: a paralyzing fear of late-night television hosts. And so, rather than panic that America is less free as a result of this no-cameras policy, might I suggest that the White House press corps have a go at some of the end runs around the moving picture and real-time audio bans we’ve been attempting at the high court.

Puppets. It’s a proud and long-standing tradition among legal reporters that, as soon as a judge tosses cameras from the courtroom, the entire trial must be re-enacted for public consumption using puppets, actors, or animals plus the actual audio of the proceedings. It’s been done for criminal trials and for the Proposition 8 hearing in California, and it reached its high water mark when John Oliver turned all nine Supreme Court justices into talking dogs. This is an elegant fix that allows the public to consume real-time audio with the added benefit of felt creatures that will be far cuddlier than Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Sketch artists. Kudos to CNN, which has already sent in longtime SCOTUS sketch artist Bill Hennessy to draw the White House gaggle. Sketches lend a certain dashing aura of criminality and generalized thuggery to the proceedings and have the added benefit of enraging White House spokespeople, who believe they deserve better than line drawings and colored pencils.

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Film it anyhow. In recent years, activists have begun to sneak in recording devices to oral arguments at the high court. Although the videos tend to be grainy and of low quality, they still enrage the justices.  White House correspondents have thus far acceded to the “no cameras” policy. Why? God made the iPhone for a purpose, and that purpose is to record Sean Spicer whether he wants to be recorded or not. Seriously, what are they going to do to you? Take away your health care?

Cover what happens, as opposed to the spin. This is the only serious point I plan to make, so listen carefully. Because we in the Supreme Court press corps have learned that the drama and theatrics of oral arguments are not easy to cover, and certainly do not make for good television, we have learned to ignore what the justices are saying and watch what they are doing. At the high court, that means learning to focus less on the snark and witty repartee of oral arguments and more on the work product that emanates from the court itself. The reason only a few dozen reporters cover oral arguments and decision days is that you can cover the court from your bathtub. Just download the opinions. By the same token, if the White House doesn’t want to talk to the public anymore, maybe the public should stop covering the show; it’s long since been established that nothing that happens at a press briefing is either interesting or true. Instead, the press corps should redouble its efforts to cover the White House as an institution rather than a sorry accretion of unstable personalities. The best curative for fake news, it seems to me, is to avoid engaging with fake people.

Be a nerd. Most Supreme Court correspondents know that if they want careers in television they should shift to covering the weather. For the most part, we are not creatures built of gotcha questions, Sunday morning grandstanding, or good hair. This is a press corps of nerds and wonks, and nobody has ever joined this beat to become famous. As a result, it is the kindest, most ego-free workplace I have ever known. We file our stories, eat dinner, and go home. As competing cults of personality have come to tower over the news in America, ask yourself why you aren’t a charter member of the Cult of Jess Bravin (Wall Street Journal). That guy works harder than anyone, doesn’t expect cameras to follow him around, and never believes he is the story. Unless Supreme Court justices are selling their autobiographies, you are unlikely to see them interviewed on camera, and when they do give lengthy interviews, they never say anything of substance.

This is, in short, an Oliver Twist–style press corps, accustomed to getting nothing and grateful for it. These folks learn to love the footnotes instead of the glamor. At a moment when we are stuck with a president who is solely a creature of celebrity culture, maybe a White House press corps made of anonymous dorks and dusty worker bees could be a breath of fresh air. There’s gold in them there footnotes. Life without TV cameras is still worth living. Life without a dorky, diligent press corps is not.

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