Politics & Policy

Obama Squelched Press Coverage of the White House. Trump Should Not Follow Suit.

Trump talks with reporters following the first presidential debate, September 26, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Loathing the media is no reason to restrict their access to the president.

On Monday evening, Donald Trump held a face-to-face meeting with a bevy of mainstream-media stars: Lester Holt and Chuck Todd of NBC, George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz of ABC, John Dickerson and Charlie Rose of CBS, Phil Griffin of MSNBC, and Jeff Zucker of CNN, among others. According tot he New York Post, the meeting went disastrously:

Donald Trump scolded media big shots during an off-the-record Trump Tower sitdown on Monday, sources told the Post. “It was like a f***ing firing squad,” one source said of the encounter. “Trump started with [CNN chief] Jeff Zucker and said, ‘I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed,’ ” the source said. “The meeting was a total disaster. The TV execs and anchors went in there thinking they would be discussing the access they would get to the Trump administration, but instead they got a Trump-style dressing-down,” the source added.

Most conservatives’ first reaction will be laughter. Their second reaction will be cheering. After all, the vast majority of these media figures covered not just Trump but Republicans unfairly for years. This is the same cast of characters that somehow turned Mitt Romney, a deeply honorable human being, into a cruel sexist carrying around binders full of women, strapping dogs to the top of cars, and forcibly cutting the hair of closeted gay teens.

They deserve it. The media have obviously destroyed their own credibility. Polls show that nearly seven in ten Americans don’t trust the media. That lack of trust meant that even solidly researched stories about Trump were routinely ignored during the election cycle. Trump’s slamming the media isn’t out of bounds on a moral level.

With that said, we do have a problem: Who is going to actually cover the Trump presidency?

The answer: perhaps nobody. It’s quite possible that Trump will grant press access only to sycophants at Breitbart News or to friendly hosts like Sean Hannity. If turnabout is fair play, he’ll be justified in doing so — President Obama used his Department of Justice to target reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News, routinely criticized talk radio and Fox News while giving fawning exclusives to Steve Kroft of CBS News and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. The press are now complaining that Trump released only pre-screened photos of an event with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, but Obama’s White House created an entire White House media feed that furnished administration-approved photos and video designed to deliver Obama’s spin directly to the public.

RELATED: Reporters’ Political Biases Should Be Clear

Still, the state of press relations isn’t good. Conservatives should remember that we weren’t pleased when Obama did all of this. We protested constantly that Obama wouldn’t allow freedom of information, that he stonewalled at every opportunity, that his friendly media covered for him at every turn. Just because Trump is a Republican doesn’t change the math: The American people are ill-served when the executive branch isn’t answerable to the press, even if we despise the members of the press. We should be rooting for Trump to open the doors, not close them — if he’s a good president, transparency should be his friend, not his enemy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816:

The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.

Yet few conservatives will decry Trump over his treatment of the press. That’s how badly leftists in the media have shredded their role: We no longer consider them checks on government at all, merely checks on non-leftism. The media called Republicans liars for pointing out Obama’s obvious lies about Obamacare; they portrayed Tea Partiers as terroristic nut jobs; they ignored real American concerns about Obama’s perverse foreign policy. Why should we care about their request to cover Trump now that he’s in the White House, if they couldn’t stop lying when Obama was in the White House?

The best defense of a free country is a free press. That doesn’t mean an objective press — there is no such thing.

And the media haven’t helped their case since Trump’s election. Instead of accurately relating the facts about Trump’s transition, his team, and his activities, they’ve turned the volume up to eleven. Trump’s transition has supposedly been historically chaotic (it hasn’t), his appointments too slow (they haven’t), his team chock-full of Nazis (nope, although questionable characters such as Steve Bannon have bragged about forwarding the ambitions of the disgusting alt-right). When Trump tweets about Hamilton, the press deem it worthy of blanket coverage. The media have numbed us; it’s nearly impossible to take them seriously.

The result: the complete breakdown of media coverage of any president. Americans now expect the media to buss Obama’s posterior and expect Obama to exclude press enemies from the White House; we similarly expect Trump to allow access only to Matt Boyle and to defenestrate Jake Tapper if he so much as sets foot in the lobby of Trump Tower. This is dangerous stuff. Here’s Jefferson again:

You know well that [the tyrannical British] government always kept a kind of standing army of news writers who without any regard to truth, or to what should be like truth, invented & put into the papers whatever might serve the minister. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.

The best defense of a free country is a free press. That doesn’t mean an objective press — there is no such thing. But it does mean the widest possible access to information. That conservatives dislike Jeff Zucker as much as Trump does is no justification for press restrictions. It certainly doesn’t mean Americans are best served by a White House open only to bootlickers. We’ve had more than enough of that during the Obama years. Eight more years of such anti-free-press behavior and rhetoric from on high will simply expand the power of the executive at the expense of the freedom of the citizenry.

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