The press doesn’t know where President-elect Donald Trump is. Well, not always.
On Monday night, reporters camped outside Trump Tower in New York City were told there would be no more Trump-related news or events that day. Then hours later, they spotted a large caravan of vehicles leaving his residence. Turns out Trump ditched the press and headed out to dinner.
This has already become commonplace since Trump’s election victory: He travels without the press and his team doesn’t always bother informing journalists about his schedule. The situation became so absurd that on Wednesday there were reports Trump had flown, unannounced, to Washington, D.C., which his spokesperson then denied.
By immediately signaling that he has no interest in providing journalists with even the most basic amount of access, and thumbing his nose at the long-standing American tradition of a presidential press pool, Trump has ignited fears about how his administration will deal with reporters, and concerns about whether game-changing restrictions will emerge.
The good news is there are common sense, collective solutions for the looming press crisis. The bad news, based on their performance during the campaign and in the days since Trump’s victory, is there’s little indication news organizations are willing to stand up to Trump’s bullying behavior.
The truth is, nobody knows exactly how the Trump White House will function in terms of dealing with the press. “The operating theory among those of us who have covered him is a Trump White House will be no different than a Trump campaign,” one anonymous reporter told Politico.
He seems to be confirming as much. “Trump’s flouting of press access was one of his first public decisions since his election Tuesday,” the Associated Press recently reported.
Question: Will there even be daily briefings for reporters at the new Republican White House?
As The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out, there’s no requirement that an administration has to hold briefings and answer questions from journalists on a nearly daily basis. Instead, it’s a tradition. It’s a goodwill gesture in the name of transparency and keeping the public informed.
But if Trump doesn’t have to, why would he? Because you know what else was a long-standing tradition done in the name of transparency? Releasing your tax returns when you ran for president, releasing relevant health information, and answering questions from reporters on the campaign trail during the general election. Trump ignored all of those. He also banned certain news outlets from his events while his campaign herded reporters into restricted press pens at his rallies where he routinely mocked and smeared journalists ("disgusting" and "horrible people”) in front of his fervent supporters.
When Trump gleefully ignored all sorts of media norms on the campaign trail, he was met with modest resistance from the press, and he won the election. So why would he suddenly feel pressure to follow previous White House media traditions?
I’m not trying to belittle the media pushback we’ve seen since Election Day. It’s an important first step. I’m just stressing that journalists could soon be facing an unparalleled effort to silence them. If so, that requires an unprecedented response. Specifically, it demands a sweeping, collective response from the country’s largest, most powerful news organizations.
Because if those outlets are afraid to stand up to President Trump, if they instead try to nibble around the edges and attempt to beg and plead their way toward Trump access, they’re doomed. And so are news consumers.
Meanwhile, Trump has at his disposal an array of dishonest “alt-right” media outlets that will proudly serve as propaganda arms for the federal government. They’ll be willing to help create the illusion of information being released by a Trump White House.
Journalists recognize a crisis may be looming with Trump. But do they comprehend the potential magnitude? Peering over the horizon, The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg stressed, “I’ve said it before, but the solution will be what it has always been — good, tough reporting.”
But how do you produce good, tough reporting, for instance, if no senior officials from the Trump White House will return your calls and there are no useful press briefings? And what if the same thing happens with the departments of Treasury, or Education, or Justice? What if there’s a complete and total lockdown on information and denial of access? If the spigot gets turned off, no amount of rah-rah newsroom cheering (“better journalism!”) is going to fix that.
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.
First, journalists cannot underestimate what's at stake or the depths to which Trump will go to nullify a free press. (They already made that mistake once in 2016.)
Second, the most obvious fix is to shame Trump into doing the right thing; to use the collective weight of the Fourth Estate to shine a relentless spotlight on what could be the new president’s radical attempt to undercut the free press; to make that a running news story that defines his presidency. Note that earlier this year The Washington Post instituted a running clock to taunt Hillary Clinton for her lack of media availability on the campaign trail. If Trump cuts off White House access to the press, every major news outlet in America should put up a running clock to highlight that fact.
The political press’ survival may be at stake.