Why do White House reporters shout questions?

July 19, 2018

MIAMI –  Because the president has not held an open news conference in more than a year, journalists have resorted to shouting questions at him, hoping to get some sort of response to vitally important queries. This is no way for a country to get insight into what the president is thinking, but it's the untidy way this White House is granting access. It also makes journalists look bad.

During the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference this week, veteran journalists offered their take on why reporters shout questions at President Trump. But first, let's back up.

On Wednesday morning, President Trump sat with his cabinet with journalists crowded like restless cattle a few feet away. While photographers jostled for camera position, reporters began shouting out questions. One reporter loudly asked if Moscow was "still targeting the United States." Trump shook his head and said, "No," setting off another day of fireworks, because what the president had apparently said was a direct contradiction to what intelligence agencies and Congress have said.

Within a few hours, press secretary Sarah Sanders claimed the president was not answering the shouted question at all. "The president … was saying 'No' to answering questions," Sanders claimed.  

CNN Town Hall meeting at NAHJ
CNN Town Hall meeting at NAHJ convention in Miami July 19, 2018: Photo by Al Tompkins

In the CNN town hall meeting Thursday at the convention, CNN White House correspondent Boris Sanchez told an audience, "We have frequently asked for a full press conference. It has been more than a year."

Instead, Sanchez pointed out, the president limits how many questions may be asked in a setting. Two U.S. reporters were allowed to ask questions of Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at their joint news conference in Finland, for example.

So when reporters do get a chance to slip in a question during a photo opportunity, they do.

"To some degree, it is why you see reporters like Jim Acosta (of CNN) ask questions like he does," Sanchez said.

Acosta, who has frequently asked loud questions during press conferences and photo-ops, has become a lightning rod for Trump's criticisms of the press.

"Access is quite limited, and you're in a position where you might feel vulnerable, but your best attempt to get an answer might be to blurt something out," Sanchez said. 

Trump, on occasion, uses the shouted question as a reason to publicly criticize journalists. He once called a journalist who shouted a question about banning transgender people from serving in the military "rude."

More recently, when Acosta tried to ask a question at a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump used the live news conference being watched around the world to call CNN "fake news" and then call on Fox News, which he said was "a real network."

It didn't end there. White House press secretary Sanders said that the White House canceled an interview between CNN and national security adviser John Bolton because Acosta "disrespected" Trump. 

 

Antoine Sanfuentes, the managing editor for CNN's White House and Capitol Hill coverage, has covered presidents for 20 years.

He said that while reporters may appear to be disrespectful by hollering questions at a president while he is at an Easter Egg party with children or while he stands with a foreign leader, "It is assumed the rules of engagement are that we will ask questions. When we are there, we will ask questions every single time."

Sanfuentes told the NAHJ town hall meeting that CNN and others constantly seek more access and ask that the president stop by the White House briefing room, but Trump prefers to make himself available to Fox News programs and occasionally to others for a short exchange.

"What this president does quite brilliantly," Sanfuentes said, "is to sow chaos."

Sanfuentes said while he understands why some viewers are critical of Acosta's confrontational style, "It takes a lot of courage to go against the president of the United States. The shouted question is the modern rule of engagement.

"Let's be more focused on the important questions Jim is asking than on how he asks it."

Sanfuentes said that Sanders may go down in history as the press secretary who's done the fewest briefings, and that lack of knowledge sends journalists searching for inside sources to leak information.

Sanchez told the crowd that the heat Trump brings on journalists, particularly CNN journalists, forces him to be self-aware.

"I say, be yourself, be self-aware. For me, I'm an immigrant. I sought asylum and was fortunate enough to get it," Sanchez said. "I have to put myself in the shoes of someone who believes immigration is a problem. You have to be unemotional and dispassionate."  

While the town hall was in progress, Sanfuentes looked at his phone and saw the latest POTUS tweet, which read: "The summit from Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people the Fake News Media …"