âItâs great for us to come out here and have a substantive discussion about policies,â Mr. Spicer said at the lectern, when asked why Fridayâs briefing had been taken off-camera. âI donât think that the be-all and end-all is whether itâs on television or not.â
Off-camera briefings have occurred under previous presidents, often parceled out among regular televised sessions with the press secretary. But these days, there is little trust between reporters and President Trumpâs communications office, which has exacerbated the typical jockeying for access.
Mr. Spicer, after initially attracting big television audiences several times a week, has cut back; there are now fewer televised briefings, with fewer questions addressed at each. The White House argues that reporters take advantage of the briefings to showboat for the cameras. Reporters say the press secretary does not want to be captured on video dodging tough questions, or committing a gaffe that could irk Mr. Trump, an avid viewer of the briefings.
The drop-off in briefings, though, is indisputable. During June, the White House has held an average of one televised briefing per week, down from several each week in previous months.
Off-camera briefings âare not a substitute for the open back-and-forth between reporters and administration officials that regular televised briefings allow,â Mr. Mason wrote in his memo on Friday, noting âthe need for transparency at the highest levels of government.â
White House correspondents acknowledge that the briefings can sometimes have limited value as a reporting tool. But they say it remains important for an administration to discuss its actions and its policy in a public forum â even if the ritual has long been an opportunity for aides to spin and obfuscate on behalf of their presidents.
The notion of reducing television coverage of the briefings is not unique to the current administration. Michael D. McCurry, who was the press secretary during the Clinton administration, has said he regretted allowing cameras into the briefings, saying the temptation for reporters to grandstand has eroded the quality of the sessions.
Mr. Spicer and his colleagues have been more closelipped than their predecessors, often saying they simply do not know Mr. Trumpâs thinking on an issue, or that they have not had a chance to ask him. Among the subjects that Mr. Trump has apparently not discussed with his senior press aides: whether he believes that Russia interfered in last yearâs election, and whether climate change is a hoax.
Mr. Mason met this week with Mr. Spicer and his chief deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in an effort to outline journalistsâ concerns. It is common for White House aides and journalists to engage in private negotiations over access and terms of coverage, a conversation that often includes the Correspondentsâ Association and a representative of the major television networks.
So far, news organizations appear to be following the White House rules, if reluctantly.
At the start of Fridayâs briefing, the website of âPBS NewsHourâ began streaming live audio of Mr. Spicer, even as cable news networks held off. A PBS spokesman said a representative of the television networks notified the network that the broadcast rules for the briefing had changed, and that live audio was no longer allowed.
After about six minutes, PBS cut off its feed.