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Politics & Policy

When It Comes to Press Access, Trump Needs To Be Better than Obama, Not Worse

Today administration officials reportedly barred a number of news outlets from joining an informal press briefing. The AP has the details:

News organizations including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and Politico were blocked from joining an informal, on the record White House press briefing on Friday.

The Associated Press chose not to participate in the gaggle following the move by White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

“The AP believes the public should have as much access to the president as possible,” Lauren Easton, the AP’s director of media relations, said in a statement.

Several news organizations were allowed in, including the conservative website Breitbart News. The site’s former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is chief strategist to President Donald Trump.

For its part, the Trump administration is denying any ill intent, claiming instead that it had just invited a few additional reporters to join the pool:

I have a few thoughts. First, if the AP report is accurate, then the administration’s move was just silly and wrong. Full stop. The only reason to exclude a news organization from a press briefing should be space available, with space allocated on a viewpoint-neutral basis. Punishing the press by excluding the press (if that’s what happened here) is no way to run a press office.

Second, the White House should know that it’s move is completely unsustainable. Every news organization with any integrity will rightly boycott briefings if the White House excludes disfavored outlets. This is yet another one of the informal but effective checks on White House power. While a portion of Trump’s base may hate the media so much that they’re fine if Sean Spicer ends up only briefing Gateway Pundit, most of the rest of America finds press exclusion ridiculous. 

Third, yes I know that the Obama administration’s hands weren’t clean on this point. Indeed, I’d forgotten how unclean they were. This 2009 New York Times report on the conflict between the Obama administration and Fox was a nice walk down memory lane:

Late last month, the senior White House adviser David Axelrod and Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News, met in an empty Palm steakhouse before it opened for the day, neutral ground secured for a secret tête-à-tête.

Mr. Ailes, who had reached out to Mr. Axelrod to address rising tensions between the network and the White House, told him that Fox’s reporters were fair, if tough, and should be considered separate from the Fox commentators who were skewering President Obama nightly, according to people briefed on the meeting. Mr. Axelrod said it was the view of the White House that Fox News had blurred the line between news and anti-Obama advocacy.

Why was the administration angry? Fox had been on the offensive. Other networks had confessed they had not been fast enough in covering stories Fox was covering, including Van Jones’s controversial comments and affiliations:

At the same time, Fox News had continued a stream of reports rankling White House officials and liberal groups that monitor its programming for bias.

Those reports included a critical segment on the schools safety official Kevin Jennings, with the on-screen headline “School Czar’s Past May Be Too Radical”; urgent news coverage of a video showing schoolchildren “singing the praises, quite literally, of the president,” which the Fox News contributor Tucker Carlson later called “pure Khmer Rouge stuff”; and the daily anti-Obama salvos from Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

There followed, beginning in earnest more than two weeks ago, an intensified volley of White House comments describing Fox as “not a news network.”

“Not a news network” sounds a bit like “fake news,” does it not? The president himself waded into the fray:

Speaking privately at the White House on Monday with a group of mostly liberal columnists and commentators, including Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Bob Herbert of The New York Times, Mr. Obama himself gave vent to sentiments about the network, according to people briefed on the conversation.

Then, in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, the president went public. “What our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes,” he said. “And if media is operating, basically, as a talk radio format, then that’s one thing. And if it’s operating as a news outlet, then that’s another.”

The Treasury Department reportedly tried to exclude Fox from a “round of interviews” with executive-pay czar Kenneth Feinberg, and — just like today — Fox’s competitors rebelled. Bret Baier hadn’t forgotten the incident and tweeted this:

I share these details not to justify Trump administration actions but to note that we’re not exactly in uncharted territory. Administrations are tempted to take action against “unfriendly” news organizations, and it’s incumbent on news outlets to follow Benjamin Franklin’s admonition (given in far more consequential times), “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

It’s one thing to bash the press. It’s another thing entirely to take steps to deny access to disfavored outlets. When it comes to access, Trump needs to be better than Obama, not worse. 


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