Today, our nation’s executive branch again demonstrated willful ignorance of how our American government operates. Trying to shut down the media is not ‘shaking things up,’ as their apologists may claim. It is anti-democratic. Small “d.”
The White House Correspondents Association (WHCA)’s response was quick and succinct: “The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House. We encourage the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”
In the United States of America, the president’s staff does not get to decide which reporters can come into the room to ask questions. Today, the White House prevented specific journalism outlets from attending their daily exchange with ‘the media.’ Blocked entities included The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the guardian, the New York Daily News, BBC, CNN, and Politico. Some of the allowed outlets behaved heroically by boycotting the so-called meeting when they learned their colleagues had been shut out: AP (Associated Press), Time, and USA Today refused to attend. The press secretary’s explanation? “I wanted to make sure that the president’s message carried,’’ he said, according to the pool report. Upon learning how the press secretary had hand-picked attendees the administration considers more favorable in their coverage, the Wall Street Journal responded: “The Wall Street Journal strongly objects to the White House’s decision to bar certain media outlets from today’s gaggle,” a Journal spokesman said. “Had we known at the time, we would not have participated and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future.”
Inclusion of the New York Daily News among the banned outlets betrays the vengeful animus behind the administration’s media exclusion. The Daily News responded with a characteristically pithy headline for tomorrow’s paper, overlaying an image of the current president with: “Freedom FROM the Press.” (Need a humorous twist on all this?)
The White House has now released a transcript of today’s “gaggle.” Reading the incoherent stream of complaints about inquiries, investigations and general media coverage is downright depressing. Here’s the quote from the press secretary that sums today up best: “Huh? You asked me if I was aware. I am not.”
Historically, a gaggle refers to an unfilmed conversation ‘to exchange information’ with the ‘press pool’ instead of the full complement of White House reporters. Here’s one way today went wrong: the press corps defines the ‘press pool,’ not the press secretary, nor anyone else in the administration. The ‘press pool’ is not an informal nickname for a cadre of hand-picked reporters; it refers to particular collections of correspondents within categories such as ‘In-town Travel pool,’ ‘Air Force One Traveling pool,’ ‘In-house pool,’ etc. Each incarnation is defined by the White House Correspondents’ Association: i.e. “The In-House Pool, for events on the White House complex, consists of no fewer than 21 members (In-town Travel Pool plus three for AP TV or CSPAN, foreign pooler, Dow Jones and AFP wires and two extra camera crew for the network pool).” Briefings by the press secretary in the White House certainly come under the heading of ‘events on the White House complex.’ The press secretary replacing the daily briefing with a meeting or a ‘gaggle’ in his office in order to screen out certain news outlets is a flimsy facade for their transparency phobia.
Another attempted explanation was blocking ‘fake news’ outlets. We could not express the absurdity of this better than a Fox television host did today: “For the record, ‘fake news’ refers to stories that are created, often by entities pretending to be news organizations, solely to draw clicks and views and are based on nothing of substance. In short, ‘fake news’ is made-up nonsense delivered for financial gain… CNN’s reporting was not fake news. Its journalists follow the same standards to which other news organizations, including Fox News, adhere.” -Shepard Smith
There are of course terribly high-stakes consequences of this White House’s efforts to stifle the work of our country’s fourth estate. One very low-stakes consequence could be to not invite this president to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. According to the WHCA rules, “Only WHCA members and their organizations are eligible to purchase tickets for the annual dinner.” Traditionally, one of the member news outlets invites the first couple to attend as their guests. Which media organization will host the White House’s current occupants? These occupants are, after all, a man who calls the media “the enemy of the people,” and his current wife who filed several libel suits for unflattering descriptions of her which she feared could lower the financial benefits she stands to accrue in the role her lawyer calls “one of the most photographed women in the world,” otherwise known to most of us as the American First Lady.
During their own early effort to ‘re-set’ a relationship with the media after a combative beginning, during the very press conference meant to make amends, this administration’s press secretary told reporters: “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” Wrong. Facts are not something on which we agree or disagree. Journalists know this. Since the personnel serving in the White House do not understand this, it is the administration itself that creates stories based on nothing of substance. And that is fake news.
News reports are full of responses to today’s egregious attempt to censor our nation’s media: “undemocratic” and “appalling” (Washington Post); “misguided” (Politico); “the public should have as much access to the president as possible.” (Associated Press); “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.” (New York Times).
“The time for normalizing, dissembling, and explaining away Donald Trump has long since passed. The barring of respected journalistic outlets from the White House briefing is so far beyond the norms and traditions that have governed this republic for generations, that they must be seen as a real and present threat to our democracy. These are the dangers presidents are supposed to protect against, not create.
“For all who excused Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign as just talk, the reckoning has come. I hope it isn’t true, but I fear Mr. Trump is nearing or perhaps already beyond any hope of redemption. And now the question is will enough pressure be turned to all those who enable his antics with their tacit encouragement. There has been a wall of unbending support from virtually every Republican in Congress, and even some Democrats. Among many people, this will [not] be seen as anything approaching acceptable. And mind you, talk is cheap. No one needs to hear how you don’t agree with the President. What are you going to do about it? Do you maintain that an Administration that seeks to subvert the protections of our Constitution is fit to rule unchecked? Or fit to rule at all?
“This is an emergency that can no longer be placed solely at the feet of President Trump, or even the Trump Administration. This is a moment of judgement for everyone who willingly remains silent. It is gut check time, for those in a position of power, and for the nation.”