“We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, ... that is something that you can’t ban an entity from. Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that's what makes a democracy a democracy, versus a dictatorship.” Sean Spicer, December 16, 2016
The White House’s petulant decision on Friday to ban several major news outlets from a media gaggle with press secretary Sean Spicer ignited justifiable outrage among journalists. And the outcry was noticeably bipartisan. “This is an attempt to bully the press by using access as a weapon to manipulate coverage,” warned Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page director for The Wall Street Journal.
Now that outrage needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be backed up by the power and prestige of the country’s largest news organizations. In other words, it’s time for institutions to take collective action and fight back.
Here’s what Media Matters stressed three months ago in the wake of Trump’s victory: “Moving forward, news organizations face a stark, and possibly defining choice in terms of how they respond to any radical efforts to curb the media’s White House access."
Since then, the Trump team has repeatedly pushed the press around. (Banning outlets from the gaggle on Friday was just the latest and most high profile example.) And time and again, the Trump team has gotten away with it.
The kerfuffle wasn’t just a random power play designed to embarrass reporters from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the BBC, and other outlets that were shut out. It was part of a larger, well-orchestrated, and incremental campaign to cut off journalists from reporting on the government. (Note also that there have been no State Department press briefings since Trump was inaugurated.)
All of this while the president forcefully moves to demonize America’s free and open press. “I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’ -- and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none,” Trump announced during his media-bashing address at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. We’re going to do something about it.”
Yet even in the wake of last week’s stunning Trump attacks and the banning of outlets from a Spicer gaggle, we’re still not seeing the level of forceful group action from news organizations that the situation requires. (They took collective action to register complaints with the Obama White House.)
To their credit, reporters from The Associated Press, Time, and USA Today decided to spontaneously boycott Friday's briefing. But while several outlets – including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and McClatchy newspapers – announced that they would not attend any future briefings where other outlets are banned, others dropped the ball. On Friday night, ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News all covered the White House’s attempt to ban certain news outlets from meeting with Spicer that day, but as Media Matters noted, none of them gave any indication that their networks would refuse to participate in future briefings that are similarly restrictive. (More than 320,000 people have signed Media Matters' petition urging members of the White House press corps to collectively stand up against Trump’s media blacklisting.)
In addition to refusing to attend restricted briefings, news organizations have several ways to push back as a group. They should:
- Temporarily disinvite White House surrogates. Just as there is no law that requires the administration to have open briefings, there’s no law that says news outlets have to invite White House surrogates every week to their Sunday political news shows. (The Trump administration purposefully refuses to provide surrogates to certain CNN programs.) So the next time the White House tries to ban news outlets from getting access, all of the television players should temporarily disinvite administration surrogates as a way to register their deep concern.
- Loudly demand that Spicer be fired. I understand that whoever replaces Spicer might engage in similar behavior. But with his recent attempt to bar major news outlets from a briefing (in addition to his weeks of pushing falsehoods from the podium), Spicer proved himself to be an unethical and untrustworthy spokesperson. To date, however, I haven't heard loud demands from major news organization or associations that Spicer, the point person for the White House’s war on the press, be fired. (Note: Axios reports today that in a highly unusual move, Spicer “personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit a New York Times article about Trump campaign aides' contact with Russia, then remained on the line for the brief conversations.”)
- Boycott press events hosted by Spicer. That was the suggestion made by veteran journalist Kurt Andersen:
- Send the interns. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been advocating this approach for weeks: De-emphasize the significance of White House press productions by sending interns to cover the events while senior reporters are out in the field tracking down better leads. It “means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this," Rosen advised. "They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props.”
- Stop televising so much of the White House press briefings live every day. The press briefings, in particular, provide a forum for administration misinformation. Why reward the White House with free daily airtime while it’s simultaneously waging a war on the press, and specifically while it's trying to deny access to certain news outlets?
The Trump White House bars CNN from a press “gaggle,” so CNN punishes the White House by airing its press briefings live most days?
With a payoff like that, why would the White House ever stop its dangerous and destructive behavior?