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PRESS-ING ISSUE

2018 was the year the White House press briefing died

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pauses during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2018.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
No more questions
  • Amanda Shendruk
By Amanda Shendruk

Visual journalist

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

In 2018, Sarah Sanders fundamentally changed the nature of the White House press briefing.

She held drastically fewer briefings than her peers, allowed relatively few questions, and engaged in many contentious exchanges, according to an analysis by the American Presidency Project.

The non-profit, non-partisan organization analyzed 6091 transcripts from 13 press secretaries, beginning during the Clinton administration and ending September 20, 2018. (This means Sanders’ three most recent briefings were not included in the analysis.) Their study includes both White House press briefings and gaggles, the informal information sessions with the press secretary.

The study found that Sanders takes fewer questions per briefing than most of her predecessors, and has more contentious exchanges than most of them. She stands out in the frequency of her briefings. Sanders has held the fewest briefings per month than any of the prior 13 press secretaries, including her immediate predecessor Sean Spicer. As of September, the number was 11.5 briefings per month. However, since then, Sanders has held only three. Once included in the data, her average rate would drop even lower.

In total, there were fewer press briefings or gaggles in 2018 than in any year since 1993.

When asked earlier this year about the lack of briefings, Sanders argued that they are less relevant than in the past.

“The day that the briefing was initially created, the atmosphere was incredibly different and you didn’t have the same access and ways to communicate with the American public,” she told Fox News in a fall interview. “I always think if you can hear directly from the president, and the press has a chance to ask the president of the United States questions directly, that’s infinitely better than talking to me.”

While Trump has held more press conferences than some past presidents, it’s still not that many. In 2017 he held 21. That’s more than the press-averse presidents like Nixon and Reagan, but similar to Obama, and many fewer than Coolidge and Roosevelt, who both averaged more than 70 a year.

As one of the ways the government is accountable to its electorate, the press briefing is an important institution. 2018 may have been the beginning of a swing toward fewer of them, but let’s hope this trend is brief.

Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.

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