White House Press Secretary: Media Report ‘Unbelievable Errors’

Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke with SMPA’s Frank Sesno as part of a forum on media’s relationship with President Trump.

Sean Spicer
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (left) speaks with SMPA director Frank Sesno at GW Monday as part a forum on President Donald Trump’s relationship with the media. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
January 31, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the media’s coverage of President Donald Trump has been overwhelmingly negative, but added that social media allows the president to communicate directly to the people.

“The press plays a healthy role in democracy, no question about it,” Mr. Spicer said at the George Washington University on Monday evening. “But they’re not the only game in town anymore.”

Mr. Spicer came to GW to participate in a discussion with Frank Sesno, School of Media and Public Affairs director, as part of a forum on Mr. Trump’s relationship with the media, “Does Trump Need the News Media? Making and Shaping the News from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” The forum featured a panel of White House correspondents and a former press secretary under President George W. Bush. The event was live streamed on Facebook.

Mr. Spicer talked about the president’s first week in office and the news cycles dominated by his ban on visitors from seven primarily Muslim nations, the Inauguration crowd size and shakeups on National Security Council membership.

The press secretary criticized the media for getting facts wrong about changes to the National Security Council and overblowing the travel ban. The media is obligated to correctly report facts, Mr. Spicer said, but many stories are riddled with “unbelievable errors” and a negative slant.

“We’re not perfect, we’re not going to get everything right,” Mr. Spicer said. “But there’s a big difference between constantly having a negative mindset about everything, what we got wrong, what we didn’t do right, as opposed to at some point, what did he get done in his first week, how many jobs did he save.”

Following the inauguration on Jan. 20, media outlets reported the crowd size was smaller than attendance at former President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The next day Mr. Spicer took to the White House briefing room podium to say Mr. Trump’s inauguration had the largest viewership in history. He said it was “unbelievably disappointing” to wake up Saturday morning and see news reports that delivered contrary information.

Many reporters said in his first act as White House press secretary, Mr. Spicer lied to the press, which calls into question the legitimacy of any information from the administration. Mr. Spicer said he does not regret the press conference and called himself a “forward thinker.”

“We created a strategy on how to deal with the current media cycle going on, and I implemented it,” he said. “I think that when you look back at everything, I probably should have taken questions.”

Mr. Spicer also pushed back on questions about the travel ban. He called the implementation successful and said only 109 people were “inconvenienced a little” when they arrived at U.S. airports and were detained because of the executive order.

Without access to the text of the executive order or background briefings before the signing, some White House correspondents said, they were left with little information on what the policy was and who was affected by it. Mr. Spicer said announcing the ban several days in advance would have telegraphed the administration's intentions and undermined the ban’s success.

Mr. Trump’s priority is to protect the safety of people living in the United States, Mr. Spicer said.

“We don’t know when the next terrorist is going to enter this country,” he said. “We don’t know when the next bomb is going to fall.”

Mr. Spicer and Mr. Sesno talked about the administration, the first week of news and its relationship with the media for more than 30 minutes.

The Media Responds
Following the conversation with the press secretary, members of the media panel responded to Mr. Spicer’s criticism.

Carol Lee, a White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said reporting accurately is more difficult when the media does not get information on policy decisions from White House officials.

“No one wants to get it wrong,” she said. “But if you don’t have the information about what is actually happening in policy statements, it makes our jobs harder. It makes the message harder, people don’t understand it, we’re more likely to get it wrong or have it half baked and not fully formed.”

The panel discussion also featured: Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under President George W. Bush; CNN’s Jim Acosta, POLITICO media reporter and GW alumna Hadas Gold, B.A. ’10, M.A. ’12, and Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and White House correspondent for Reuters.

Mr. Acosta, who sparred with Mr. Spicer over the post-inauguration press conference, said Mr. Trump benefitted from an abundance of TV airtime during the campaign, even if it was largely negative. During the campaign Mr. Trump saw backlash after he made numerous offensive statements about women and minorities.

“The reason why he generated a lot of negative coverage is because of the things that he said during the course of this campaign,” Mr. Acosta said.

Journalists have struggled with how to cover Mr. Trump. He has called the media dishonest and reporters liars. He has criticized outlets he doesn’t like, calling the New York Times failing, CNN fake news and Buzzfeed “a failing pile of garbage.”

Mr. Fletcher said over the last two decades public trust in the press has eroded, and reporters are helpless to do anything about it. Being too hard on the Trump administration will only alienate conservatives further. 

“Report the offensive things he says, report the good things he does, but stop telling the American people what conclusions to reach,” he said.

Ms. Gold said the concentration of media in New York City and Washington, D.C., has caused reporters to overlook how Americans living away from coastal cities feel about political issues. This was evident, she said, from polls that indicated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would win the election, but she ultimately failed to win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Reporters who had written about voters in those areas were mocked for saying Mr. Trump could win, she said.

Mr. Acosta said the president of the United States does not get to decide what is true. Mr. Mason said the public has to pay attention to where they are getting their news and figure out if it is from a source providing opinions or facts.

White House correspondents have been concerned over reports that administration officials are considering moving the daily press briefing out of the White House. Mr. Spicer said Monday there are no current plans to do this after the idea received significant backlash.

CNN will not depend on access to the president or the White House in covering this administration, Mr. Acosta said. Reporters will continue to cultivate sources and pursue the truth.

“They can throw us out of the White House, they can kick us down the street. We’ll set up our trucks on Pennsylvania Avenue, we’ll do the exact same stories every day,” he said. “It does not matter what they do because we’re here to do our job.”

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