On Saturday, in his first official appearance as President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer tried something audacious. Instead of holding a typical press conference, he delivered a nationally televised tongue-lashing. He blustered, berated the assembled members of the White House press corps for accurately reporting the news, spouted a slew of factually dubious claims without evidence, and left without taking questions. The Trump administration’s message to the media seemed to be: We can say whatever we want, and you can’t stop us, because we don’t need you.
It was a bold gambit, and perhaps a calculated one. The mainstream media, wedded as they are to ideals such as objectivity and balance, had shown themselves throughout the campaign to be sometimes game but ultimately powerless defenders of the truth—and, as such, unworthy opponents (if also frequent punching bags) for a candidate who was willing to lie loudly and often. Why go to the trouble of haggling with a horde of pesky journalists when he could take his propaganda straight to the public via Twitter, rallies, and live TV?
But something seemed to have snapped for many of the reporters in that briefing room on Saturday. Their norms had already been pushed to the breaking point by Trump’s campaign. And in the wake of Spicer’s rant—which was as dismissive of the fourth estate itself as it was of the truth—even the most docile of outlets seemed to break free of their shackles. Once-taboo words like untrue and falsehoods cropped up in headlines and chyrons across the country. There were calls for TV networks to stop broadcasting White House press briefings and stop booking Trump advisers. Every third-rate hack with a clip-on microphone suddenly fancied himself the second coming of Ed Murrow. On Twitter, meanwhile, Spicer became a meme as wags ascribed to him various outlandish claims under hashtags such as #spicerfacts. Even vanilla USA Today mocked spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s defense of Spicer’s claims as “alternative facts.”
Trump declared war on the mainstream media long ago; on Saturday, the media belatedly declared war in return.
Apparently, that was more than Trump and his team had bargained for. Because on Monday, the tone of Spicer’s first regularly scheduled White House press briefing was utterly different.
Spicer came out calm, smiling, and attempted to crack a few self-deprecating jokes. Nobody laughed, but he soldiered on. He pledged to answer everyone’s questions. He walked back some of Saturday’s most glaring whoppers, such as his apparent claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever, while gamely relitigating others. When a reporter asked a question he didn’t like, he didn’t scowl or ignore them or call them “fake news,” as his boss did two weeks ago. He laughed, or sighed, or pushed back defensively but not disrespectfully.
The reporters, for their part, asked tough questions and labored to pin Spicer to his own misstatements and to Trump’s. But Spicer had come prepared, and he surprised them by going toe-to-toe over the facts on things like the size of the online inauguration audience (again, his claims lacked merit) and exactly who was in the front row for Trump’s Saturday speech at the CIA. “Well, I don’t want to get into the numbers,” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl stammered when Spicer challenged him over a data point. Spicer shot back: “Well, I do.”
There was certainly still some combativeness on display Monday; still plenty of dissembling; still the cagey, disingenuous tactic of distracting from the Trump administration’s actions by fixating on the media’s own shortcomings. In this case, Spicer pivoted sharply from his own false statements to a passionate takedown of a single reporter’s errant tweet, which he presented as evidence that “the media” get things wrong, too. “Where was the apology to the president of the United States?” he demanded to know. In fact, the reporter’s apology is right here, where it’s been since he made it on Friday, right after he publicly corrected the mistake. Spicer himself had accepted the apology! But those watching along at home didn’t know that, and they probably never will. This tactic—attacking the press’s credibility as a means of defending the president’s—isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a central feature of Trump’s political strategy.
But sparring with the press, spinning the press, and distracting from the topic at hand are all part of the routine we’ve come to expect from press secretaries. For better or worse, most reporters are happy to put up with all of that as part of the bargain for quotes and access—particularly when it's served with at least a veneer of collegiality and accountability, as when Spicer said Monday that he welcomed a “healthy and open dialogue with the press corps and the public.” It may be something of a charade, but it’s Washington’s status quo.
Saturday was Spicer’s attempt to break with that status quo. Or perhaps, as former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer suspects, it was really Trump’s attempt, and Spicer was just the reluctant messenger. Regardless, the bad-cop routine backfired, bigly.
And so on Monday we got the good cop, the Spicer who smiles and cajoles, argues and explains, and soothes the media’s ego by reassuring them that they matter, even as he wrestles with them for control of the day’s narrative. It was not a clear win for either side of the podium. But the battle was happening according to the Washington media’s preferred terms of engagement.
It’s conceivable this was part of the plan all along: Browbeat, spurn, and lie to the media one day so they’ll feel grateful when you even deign to argue with them the next. That would be in keeping with Trump’s approach to business negotiations. But it seems more likely, given Spicer’s evident sensitivity to the backlash that ensued, that this was a real course correction—that either Trump, Spicer, or both realized they had to play the game after all. They can still use the briefing room to push their “alternative facts,” but they’re going to have to stand there and defend them if they don’t want to be a national laughingstock.
The right has gained a lot of ground on the mainstream media over the years. It has managed to paint leading outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post as liberal while propelling the far more openly partisan Fox News to pre-eminence. Trump gained still more ground in the course of the election, finding that he could often overwhelm the mainstream media’s capacity to vet his claims through sheer volume. No doubt his administration will keep pushing the limits of its power over the press in the months and years to come. But this weekend, for once, those limits pushed back.