Spicer's daily press briefings are must-see TV in Washington

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 3, 2017. Spicer answered questions about the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump's salary and other topics. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Caption
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 3, 2017. Spicer answered questions about the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump's salary and other topics. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Credit: Susan Walsh

Credit: Susan Walsh

"Two minutes" someone shouts, and a hush settles over the room, jammed with reporters.

Soon White House press secretary Sean Spicer steps to the podium with a cheery "good afternoon" and lighthearted crack about a Politico article chronicling his "curious habit" of using the adjective "phenomenal" to describe things that, in truth, aren't going well.

Things quickly deteriorate into a familiar place: Spicer lacerating the news media and reporters blasting him with questions — combat that has made the daily press briefing must-see TV, at times beating ratings for "General Hospital" and other soaps, a spectacle that President Donald Trump himself tunes into.

"How many times can you ask the same question?" Spicer fumed at one reporter.

On Monday, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News carried the briefing live, as has become standard, political theater for all: news junkies, Trump critics, mainstream media haters, comedians.

The daily briefing has spawned Saturday Night Live skits and made mini-celebrities out of reporters, who for years under "no drama Obama" attended one ordinary briefing after another. In four years covering the Barack Obama White House for the McClatchy newspaper chain, Anita Kumar never got viewer feedback for questions she posed to Spicer predecessor Josh Earnest, who scoffed at his share of reporters.

"Now random people come up to me. Also, they mock me a lot on Twitter. It's kind of weird," said Kumar. She was running out the door one morning last week and the exterminator stopped her -- he recognized her from TV.

"You never know if Sean's going to say something newsy," Kumar said, adding, "He's definitely nicer than the Saturday Night Live character."

The hot news one recent afternoon was a New York Times report that two White House officials provided Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, with reports showing Trump and associates were caught up in surveillance by American spy agencies.

It was a new layer to growing questions about Nunes' behavior, but Spicer refused to engage, repeatedly dodging questions and accusing reporters of obsessing over "process" and not the "substance" of questions about domestic surveillance.

"You've told us that you're willing to look into and ask questions about the process and provide us answers. That's all I'm trying to –," said Major Garrett, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News. Spicer interrupted. "No, no, no — no, don't — please don't put words in my mouth. I never said I would provide you answers. I said we would look into it."

Spicer, 45, unfurls a stream of nos every time he goes to battle. The former Republican National Committee communications director has one of the hardest jobs the city, conveying the positions of an unpredictable president and a White House that often seems in disarray.

"I'm going to let the tweet speak for itself," Spicer often says of Trump's online habits.

He has created his own waves. In Spicer's first briefing, he proclaimed the Jan. 20 inauguration was the largest audience "both in person and around the globe," despite photographic evidence and pummeled the media for stating otherwise. (PolitiFact rating his claim Pants on Fire.)

Last week, Spicer got into a spat with April Ryan, the Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio, by accusing her of being "hell-bent" on casting the administration as she saw fit, then implored, "please stop shaking your head." Spicer took heat but denied Ryan's gender or race factored.

"I'm treating April Ryan with the same pushback that I would any other reporter in that room," he told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Spicer's choice of ill-fitting suits, since reeled in, has been scrutinized, his angry-man antics turned into the gum-chugging, podium-as-weapon Saturday Night Live character played by Melissa McCarthy.

"Cute" was Spicer's less than thrilled reaction, though he later had fun with it. "Don't make me make the podium move," he threatened a reporter, the room breaking into laughter.

Trump supporters have rallied around Spicer, casting him as a defender against liberally-biased media. Ching-Yi Chang, a correspondent for Shanghai Media Group, says the press corps is noticeably tougher on Trump than Obama. "Sometimes I see them jumping to conclusion before there is a judgment," he said.

YouTube clips capture Spicer's greatest hits. One title reads: "We Are Splitting Some Serious Hairs." Sean Spicer Knocks Out CNN Reporter. Another: "Can You Read English?" Sean Spicer Takes On ABC Reporter.

"It's business. He has a job to do. I have a job to do," said Garrett, the CBS News correspondent, who has covered briefings in four administrations. "The curiosity level for a Trump presidency is off the charts, domestically and globally."

More foreign journalists have been showing up to the briefings, adding to already cramped quarters. Seats are assigned to news outlets and interlopers compete for the rare empty ones.

Spicer has changed things up, spreading questions around the room (which includes more faces from decidedly pro-Trump outlets) rather than allowing the top networks and newspapers to dominate. He fields inquiries via Skype, giving reporters outside Washington a voice, while casting White House veterans as inside-the-beltway creatures reliant on anonymous sources and leaks.

"There's a desire to move the room's mentality, and if you're not following that story, you're somehow hostile, obsessed," Garrett said. The tactic, he added, plays into a larger political purpose of discrediting reporters, "That it's fake news, dishonest and it undermines not only this administration but the betterment of this country."

Garrett says he and other reporters have "a great opportunity" and should not back down from asking tough questions.

"Journalism is being evaluated in real time," he said. "For someone whose industry has record low credibility and declining market share, what journalists do with this time is very important, not just to journalism itself but its toehold in American life."