President Donald Trump’s escalation of his war with the news media crossed a line last Friday.
It wasn’t his denunciation of journalists as “the enemy of the people” during a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference – an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials. Nor was it his claim The New York Times and CNN are “a great danger to our country.” Such over-the-top assertions have come to be expected from Trump and his administration.
The crossing of the line occurred hours after that speech when White House press secretary Sean Spicer barred specific news organizations from attending his daily “press gaggle,” an informal, off-camera but on-the-record briefing conducted by White House press secretaries.
Banned from the event were The New York Times, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, the BBC, The Huffington Post, Politico and BuzzFeed News. Allowed into the briefing were Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times, all with conservative leanings, and journalists from ABC, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Fox News.
To their credit, reporters from the Associated Press and Time magazine boycotted the briefing in protest of Spicer’s actions. The Washington Post, another frequent foil for Trump, did not send a reporter.
What Spicer did was an unprecedented breach of relations between the White House and its press corps. And Spicer made it clear what was going on.
“We’re going to aggressively push back,” he told those selected to attend the briefing. “We’re just not going to sit back and let, you know, false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts get out there.” Spicer ignored the numerous, well-documented “false narratives, false stories and inaccurate facts” Trump and his handlers have unleashed on the public since the beginning of his presidential campaign.
There is no disputing some news outlets have published false or misleading reports, usually based on too-often-used anonymous sources, regarding Trump and his administration. And Trump is quick to respond.
But the administration’s determination to punish reporters and news outlets whose coverage officials dislike went far beyond the accustomed picking of favorites – and anyone who understands how critical a free and unfettered press is to sustaining a democracy should be deeply concerned.
Excluding or selectively screening reporters gives those excluders and screeners, e.g., Spicer, far too much control over information provided to our nation’s population.
Granted, previous administrations have been less than open with the press. Just one example is that despite then-President Barack Obama’s self-serving declarations his would be the most transparent administration in history, in 2015 there was a backlog of 160,000 requests for U.S. government documents that went unanswered.
So far, there has not been a repeat of a ban on specific media. Let’s hope there is none.
Spicer’s actions were a political tactic that makes the White House look petty at best and fearful of accountability at worst.
Such an attempt to control the media by exclusion made it clear this White House fails to understand, much less value, the sacrosanct role a free press plays in a democracy – something the founding fathers not only understood, but enshrined in the First Amendment.
It’s a lesson ignored at the nation’s peril.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.