On Feb. 24, several media outlets—including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Politico, BBC, and CNN—were barred from attending a press briefing in Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office.
Any outlets not on a list of pre-approved attendees (on the approved list: Fox, One America News, Breitbart, The Wall Street Journal, NBC, ABC, the Washington Times, and McClathy) were shut out of the meeting.
Last June, Donald Trump barred The Washington Post from covering his campaign events. In January, his chief strategist Steve Bannon nicknamed the media “the opposition party,” saying, “They don’t understand this country.”
On Twitter, the president has taken to referring to organizations such as the New York Times and CNN as “fake news,” while promoting other organizations, like Fox News. Before the election, the term “fake news” was used to describe actual fabricated news flooding Facebook and Google. Following President Trump’s inauguration, the term has been co-opted as a slur for news organizations that the president feels do not portray his administration favorably.
“The new administration has had a pretty hostile relationship with the press from day one,” Eric Lichtblau, New York Times Washington bureau reporter, remarked. “So barring a few of the bigger and more influential news organizations from the briefing was one more step in that direction, unfortunately.”
“It should be recognized that softer versions of that have been going on for quite a while,” Professor Tim Groeling, UCLA’s Department of Communication Studies Chair, said.
Though there has been no precedent quite as drastic as selectively barring outlets from a customarily public event like the televised press briefings, administrations in the modern era have given special interviews to reporters who would give a more favorable coverage. President Trump is also not the president to have such a rocky relationship with the press, though President Nixon was not so outspoken about his distaste.
#FreedomofthePress trended on Twitter following the news. Some netizens voiced outrage and leapt to defend the press. Others took the opportunity to decry the media.
Though the Twitter hashtag alluded to the First Amendment, the Trump administration’s move on Feb. 24 was “more a bad practice in violation of the existing forms” than a blatant constitutional violation, Professor Groeling said. “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says the president has to talk to the press at all… there was a long period of time when there was no White House press corps. There was a long period of time when there was no expectation that the president would respond to anything except written questions. These norms have evolved over time, and people think that they are constant.”
Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. That is the protection afforded by the First Amendment. But so many perceived obligations of the presidency are precedent, rather than written law, and precedents are only as strong as the stock you put in them.
Barring major news outlets from a press briefing held in Sean Spicer’s office—where the plausible excuse of limited space exists—could be a new precedent.
Another new precedent: President Trump has declined to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Apr. 29, where the president and the press traditionally defuse tensions over supper and self-deprecation. He is the first to do so since President Reagan missed the 1981 Correspondents’ Dinner because he was recovering from a bullet wound.
“People should be concerned that the White House is just so outwardly hostile toward the press … in a way that I’ve certainly never seen before in my lifetime,” Lichtblau said. “The media is … a check on government power, and if the White House tries to limit [the media’s] access and effectiveness, then it is affecting the public’s right to know.”
Different media outlets will always have different political leanings and have audiences with different political views. Disagreeing with those different views is natural. But attempting to delegitimize outlets with different leanings altogether can be damaging.
“Cross-party credibility in belief of news is something that has, I think, been declining,” Professor Groeling observed. “What that ends up presenting you is something more like nineteenth century news than 20th century news, where there’s a lot of partisan cheerleading, there isn’t a lot of consensus on what the facts are, and where public opinion is very polarized. And we did have a civil war in the 19th century. That makes me less cheerful and optimistic.”