Sarah Sanders' Legacy as a 'Fierce and Loyal' Defender of the President Says More About the Press | Opinion

The White House press corps won't miss departing presidential press secretary Sarah Sanders any more than the chimpanzees in a zoo probably miss their keepers at night. But I'll miss her a lot—largely because her resistance to their efforts at intimidation was often quite entertaining.

The national press has been at war with Donald Trump almost since his announcement. They didn't take him seriously, laughed at his candidacy, predicted he could never win the nomination and, after he did, counted him out more than once. Since he came into office, they've been on a mission, some of them, to prove they were right and the American people wrong to have elected him to the highest office in the land.

Sanders was a bulwark against that, standing like Horatius at the bridge to block the worst of the onslaught. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, no stranger to controversy himself, put it this way in a tweet sent after her departure was announced: "Sarah Sanders did an amazing job defending President Trump and confronting the dishonesty and hostility of the news media. She understood the hypocrisy of 'attack dog' reporters claiming the right to be treated as news professionals and she met their toughness with her own."

Toughness, though, is no substitute for truthfulness. Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry—the man who redefined the job in the age of the 24-hour news cycle—is famously said to have told others inside the White House to tell him only the things he needed to know so that he wasn't put in the position of having to be untruthful.

It was good advice, and Sanders should have followed it. It would be irresponsible not to mention that on at least one occasion she was forced to admit she'd made up a bit of information she'd shared during a West Wing briefing. She may have not been the first in her position to do so (under the current president or his predecessors), but having been caught in a lie once, it would be difficult for her to withstand scrutiny in the future.

That's particularly salient where the current White House comes in. Not because the president dissembles with such apparent frequency or because he is often given to exaggeration but because a certain number of my colleagues—especially those hoping someday to become rich selling books or achieve rarified status in the media hierarchy as host of their own show in prime time—walked into the briefing room every day with knives drawn and bayonets fixed. The pursuit of news, even the pursuit of truth, became apparently subordinate to the activities of a few who, content to take over the briefing with their antics, gave ample fodder for the president to level his consistent criticisms about "fake news."

Entertaining? Perhaps. Nurturing to the psyches of those who count themselves among the "resistance" to Trump? Almost certainly. But conducive to informing and enlightening the public? In my judgment at least, absolutely not.

Her colleagues inside the executive mansion, current and former, hold her in high regard. Kelly Sadler, a former White House communications aide who is now communications director at America First Action, the president's official re-election political action committee, called Sanders "an incredible asset in the White House."

"She was a fierce and loyal defender of the president, a strong leader and, most importantly, a godly and grounded person. Her role expanded beyond just dealing with the press. She became a trusted adviser to the president on all matters, and the White House will be at a great loss without her," Sadler told me.

Sanders had her considerable Southern charm going for her, along with an apparently unbending backbone of steel that led her, eventually, to end the daily televised briefing. That's probably as it should be—many of my colleagues would probably disagree—because it's not really a place to learn anything save for the official line on a given event or issue. The real work of reporting comes from talking to people, knowing the facts about the issues that you encounter on your beat, cultivating sources and, in the best of all possible worlds, persuading them to go on the record in some manner other than anonymously.

Sarah Sanders, Fox News
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders talks to reporters after an interview with Fox News outside the West Wing May 23 in Washington, D.C. Getty/Chip Somodevilla

America has a problem, something the contretemps between Sanders and those who cover the president made clear. The media superstars and wannabes who disrupted the briefings are so busy serving themselves and their own interests they've forgotten about the American people and what they need to know.

On many of the big stories, like the accusations of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian intelligence that came up so often and took so much time in the regular briefing, their allegations have failed to be proven true. They talk about Trump's tough talk about the press being a danger to democracy, but look at the polls. Who's more popular with the people: Trump or the media who cover him?

From the standpoint of the news business, that tells you what you need to know.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about aspects of the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Sarah Sanders' Legacy as a 'Fierce and Loyal' Defender of the President Says More About the Press | Opinion | Opinion
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