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Columnists
Other view: The White House is playing a game of chicken with the media

It seems clear, at this point, that the White House would prefer not to hold regular press briefings. But President Donald Trump and his aides do not want to be the ones to pull the plug. They want journalists to do it.

The White House is playing a game of chicken with the media, making the briefing situation so untenable that reporters might bail first. If successful, Team Trump will achieve its desired outcome while avoiding the blame.

The apparent strategy has three prongs:

Turn off the cameras

Eight of the last 11 briefings have been held off camera, including Friday’s. The White House also banned live audio broadcasts of those sessions.

This is the new normal, and it makes for lousy television. Cable news networks initially aired audio recordings on delay, under still images, but quickly abandoned the degraded productions.

Stop answering questions

A month ago, the White House said it would refer all questions about the special counsel-led investigation of Russian election meddling to Trump’s private attorneys. On other subjects, too, White House spokesmen increasingly say they don’t know the answers or haven’t asked the president.

During an off-camera briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration’s theme of the week would be “energy dominance.”

“What does energy dominance mean?” a reporter asked.

“Well, I think we’ll continue to talk about that throughout the week,” Spicer replied. He proceeded with a vague answer about “our ability to now export” and “our ability to maximize our natural resources and create jobs.” Pressed for details, Spicer delivered none.

“I think it means a lot of things,” he said. “I mean, just the ability to now be an exporter helps us in economic ways, but then obviously there is a political aspect to this.”

Even on the topic that the White House supposedly wanted to make a focal point, Spicer had little information to share.

The White House appears to be trying to turn briefings into such low-value events that reporters will stop showing up.

“The White House press secretary is getting to a point where he’s just kind of useless,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said on the air after an unproductive briefing last week. “If he can’t come out and answer the questions, and they’re just not going to do this on camera or audio, why are we even doing these briefings or these gaggles in the first place?”

Show the media at its worst

The White House picked two days this week to hold briefings on camera: Tuesday, the day after three CNN journalists resigned following a retraction, and Thursday, the day that Trump tweeted a sexist attack on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski.

These are not coincidences.

The retraction and resignations at CNN created a prime opportunity for the White House to rip the media, and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders certainly took it. Without evidence, she accused the press of outright fabrication and said “if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”

A couple days later, Trump’s tweets about Brzezinski set the scene for a circuslike event, which is how the White House has been trying to characterize briefings, in general. Questions about the president’s tweets dominated the session, and some reporters were visibly offended. That was perfectly understandable, but the optics likely helped the White House make its case that journalists use the briefings to grandstand:

“See? They’re not interested in policies or hard-working Americans. They just talk about themselves and ask the same questions over and over.”

The White House seems to be trying to drive journalists toward the following conclusion: Briefings are bad TV, hardly informative and make us look petty. Let’s stop going.

Axios co-founder Mike Allen argued on Thursday that reporters should do just that.

The White House strategy is working.


Columnists
Other view: For Google, punishment without crime

The following editorial appears in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Almost exactly 4½ years after the U.S. government’s leading antitrust agency decided that Google had not unlawfully abused its position as the world’s No. 1 Internet search engine, the European Commission in Brussels has reached a contrary conclusion. After lengthy investigation, the commission ruled that Google had violated European antitrust law, and slapped the U.S.-based company with a $2.7 billion fine. This turn of events proves the United States and Europe have different approaches to fighting monopoly. And while the latter’s is certainly more satisfying to the Silicon Valley giant’s many critics, that does not necessarily make it superior, in terms of antitrust policy’s core purposes.

Obviously the whole matter has gotten caught up in European angst over the dominance that U.S. companies exercise in this crucial industry. But to the extent that there was a real issue, it was Google’s shopping tool, which affords privileged treatment to paid sponsors in responding to queries from consumers. Search “women’s ECCO shoes” on the German version of Google, for example, and up pop various offerings for Birkenstocks from a select group of vendors—accompanied by a note, in tiny type off to the side, indicating that “merchant links are sponsored.”

Google argues that this is not a case of Internet payola, but a search result that balances the consumer’s individual needs and preferences, based on the data the company possesses about him or her—and Google’s need to make enough revenue to stay in business crunching all that data. In fact, the firm insists, it wouldn’t be in its interest to do anything truly skewed by advertising dollars, because consumers would quickly catch on. The European Commission disagreed, in effect siding with comparison shopping sites that claimed Google unfairly shut them out—many of which had, in fact, already gone out of business in the time it took the commission to rule.

Whether the demise of any of them is specifically traceable to Google, however, is not so clear. Also unclear is the aggregate harm from Google’s practices to consumers, as opposed to the unlucky companies. Birkenstock-seekers may well prefer to see a Google-generated list of vendors first, instead of clicking around to other sites. Certainly Google’s disclosure of its sponsorship arrangements adds a small but nontrivial note of transparency. Those who aren’t happy anyway have other options. Indeed, the rise of comparison shopping on giants such as Amazon and eBay makes concerns that Google might exercise untrammeled power over e-commerce seem, well, a bit dated. (Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.) Who knows? In a few years we might be talking about how Facebook leveraged its 2 billion users to disrupt the whole space.

The immense size and power of all Internet giants are a legitimate focus for the antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Brussels vs. Google, however, seems to be a case of punishment without crime.


Columnists
Stapilus: Pushing the odds on the F-35

Last week attendees at the Association of Idaho Cities heard a presentation about a Boise-specific project that could have impacts throughout the state: The effort to designate Gowen Field at Boise as a training mission site for the F-35 Air Force aircraft.

The state’s national guard unit at Gowen would supply manpower for the effort. While Gowen is located at Boise, Mayor David Bieter and a state Department of Commerce spokesman pointed out the economic effects of the added mission at the airfield, which would run to many millions of dollars and added employment, could ripple throughout southern Idaho.

The contest to house the F-35 mission is not over; five cities are in the running (the others are Jacksonville, Florida; Detroit, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; and Montgomery, Alabama), and two will be chosen. They would replace the A-10 Warthogs, at least some of which are going away. There is some concern about what might happen if Boise misses out; Gowen employs 1,300 people and facilities associated with it employ more. There’s a lot at stake here, since the worst-case scenario might include a shutdown if no new Air Force mission is assigned. An F-35 assignment, on the other hand, might lead to significant expansions. The final decision will be made by the secretary of the Air Force in Washington.

So the Boise and state of Idaho interest in the F-35 is understandable.

The presentation to the cities officials covered these points and others, but it seemed to elide one aspect of the discussion around the proposal: The mixed reaction to it locally. The pitch at the meeting took the basic approach that support for the expansion is stronger than many people think. But that hints at the fact of significant opposition out there. And it is significant.

Some of the most visible comes from David Frazier, whose website Boise Guardian has been tracking the city’s press for the assignment—critically. Noise (the two sides hotly dispute the amount and quality of it), economic impact and other issues are factors, but Frazier’s biggest complaint may be that the city hasn’t much engaged those Boiseans who are in opposition.

Last week a Guardian article said that, “With more than 200 residents attending a Tuesday meeting, it’s fair to say opposition to the F-35 being based at Gowen Field is growing. Citizens packed the public meeting room at the Main Library to hear speakers discuss the ramifications of basing the F-35 at Gowen Field. Although invited by the sponsoring, ‘Citizens For A Livable Boise’ group, no one from the city of Boise or the Idaho Air National Guard attended.”

He and some others in opposition say that while the city and state have promoted the F-35 project to any number of associations, from cities to realtors, Boiseans irritated about it have had trouble getting the city’s ear.

This could be an issue for the advocates since—as was pointed out at the cities association—local support for the expansion is a factor the Air Force considers when making its assignments.

The point here is not to take a side on whether the F-35s should come to Boise. But it is to suggest that if advocates want to improve their odds of attracting it, a little more community outreach to the opposition might be helpful.