On Friday, President Donald Trump told a crowd of cheering supporters that major news outlets are “the enemy of the people” because they make up critical stories about his administration. Press secretary Sean Spicer followed up that rhetoric by barring credible journalists from a press gaggle while making room for pro-Trump reporters.
While collective action remains in short supply, the moves drew quick denunciation from the press. “I find it deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable that the White House is actively running a campaign against a constitutionally enshrined free and independent press,” National Press Club President Jeffrey Ballou wrote in a statement. "The action harkens back to the darkest chapters of US history and reeks of undemocratic, un-American and unconstitutional censorship.”
But as criticism of the White House poured in, one party proved noticeably timid: the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the very White House press corps that remains constantly in the administration’s sights.
After an initial statement in which he said the WHCA was “protesting strongly against how today's gaggle is being handled by the White House,” the organization’s president, Jeff Mason, embarked on a media tour in which he has seemingly run damage control for the White House press office. In several interviews, Mason has paired tepid criticism of the Trump administration’s actions with praise for the access the administration has granted reporters.
“We’re not happy with how things went today,” Mason told The New York Times the same day. “But it’s important to keep in mind the context of how things have gone up until now.” Stressing that the White House continues to do daily press briefings, he added: “I don’t think that people should rush to judgment to suggest that this is the start of a big crackdown on media access.”
“I think it’s worth noting that since Sean became press secretary, he`s been having regular briefings in the White House press room on television. I would -- I’m reluctant to draw conclusions from what happened today,” he said on MSNBC’s For the Record that night. “We don`t like what happened today, but I want to look at the full record and also say we’ve had pretty good access so far. We hope that that is the trend that continues and not a trend of excluding news organizations.”
“It's important, I think, for viewers to know that despite that rhetoric, we have worked well with the Trump White House. We have had many opportunities for journalists to ask questions of the president and of his press team,” he added on today’s Morning Joe.
He later added: “I want to put it in the larger context of what has happened during this first month. During the first month, Sean Spicer has been briefing regularly from the briefing room and on television and that is what we asked for. And so that is important not to forget. The fact that they did not include a bunch of organizations on Friday is certainly a concern. And, of course, it comes in the context of President Trump saying things like the fact that he believes the media is the enemy of the American people. We absolutely do not believe that.”
Taking questions from journalists at daily press briefings is not some special privilege that Spicer has provided. It is literally the least that any journalist could expect from a press secretary. And the vitriol that Trump wields on a daily basis deserves more than mild disagreement.
Either Mason is truly unconcerned with the attacks the Trump administration has heaped upon the press or he is desperately fighting to preserve the very basics of press access.
As Poynter’s James Warren wrote of Mason’s comments to the Times:
It was disappointing and suggested an underlying craving by some for peace and moderation and press-White House harmony. Intentional or not, it suggested how a bully can intimate his victims and make some of them cower.
Friday's outrage over the gaggle in Spicer's office is a hint of things to come. It was a toe in the water. It's like, as a friend puts it, “The Trump administration is basically boiling the frog, and the frog is better off not being tepid when the water turns lukewarm.”
During an era in which the president and his officials have attacked the press in unprecedented fashion -- with Trump himself declaring that he is in “a running war with the media” -- Mason has repeatedly been called upon to respond. And again and again, he has seemed more concerned with preserving his relations with Spicer and the press office than with defending journalism in the age of Trump.
At times, Mason’s interviewers have seemed shocked at Mason’s willingness to downplay the Trump administration’s efforts to delegitimize journalism.
On January 22 -- the morning after Spicer used his first appearance before the press corps as White House press secretary to attack reporters for accurately reporting on the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration -- Mason appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources. While Mason acknowledged that Spicer’s comments had been “stunning,” he praised the White House for keeping the press briefings in their current location and allowing a pool to observe Trump signing an executive order (again, the bare-minimum expectations for what the White House should do).
Watch host Brian Stelter try to get Mason to admit that the White House’s actions against the press have been extreme, and his response.
BRIAN STELTER:There's clearly some anxiety here. What are you telling the White House correspondents about how to approach this?
JEFF MASON: Well, for starters, I think it's important to reinforce the point that we've already made here at the panel, which is that there's always going be a level of tension between the White House and the press corps. That is normal, that is healthy, and that is something that we expect to continue here. That level of tension may have gone up a little bit --
STELTER: May have?
MASON: OK -- did.
STELTER: He said there's a running war with the media. He's using war analogies. He's referencing combat.
MASON: Yes, you're right. You're absolutely right. And we recognize that. And so, it puts some strain on the relationship. But it's in the interest of the White House Correspondents' Association to try to continue to be an honest broker and a good interlocutor between the press corps and the White House. And that's why it's important for me to keep meeting with Sean and our board to keep meeting with his team.
In the weeks that followed, the Trump administration regularly attacked the press, with Trump himself repeatedly calling the media and various outlets “fake news,” “a disgrace,” “the opposition party,” “failing,” “dishonest,” and “the enemy of the American people.”
But during a CNN International interview last week, Mason praised the access reporters have gotten to the White House, while saying only that “the tone set by the President has been a challenge.” That led to this exchange with host Hala Gorani (accessed via Nexis):
HALA GORANI: But, Jeff, it's not every day the President of the United States calls reporters the enemy of the American people. This is the type of thing we expect to hear in the Middle East or in regimes, you know, that have not a great democratic sort of track record. I mean, did this send a chill in the White House press corp when you heard that?
JEFF MASON: Well, it's not the type of tone that I would choose to set, but it's up to the President to decide what kind of tone he wants and to use the language that he wants. You know, I've said repeatedly, we don't influence the language --
GORANI: It's not innocuous language, though. I mean, this is pretty serious, or actually it is --
MASON: I agree.
Mason is acting like he has no cards to play, as if the White House press corps exists by the sufferance of the administration. As long as the press corps engages in such open display of weakness, the White House will continue to see what it can get away with.
Click here to tell the White House press corps to stand up to Trump’s media blacklist.