Both the National Press Club and the White House Correspondents Association protested a decision by the White House to block reporters from attending an off-camera briefing.
Journalists from BBC, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and POLITICO were not allowed to attend a briefing, which was previously scheduled to be an on-camera briefing with White House press secretary Sean Spicer. However, reporters from conservative media outlets were specifically invited.
The decision to exclude outlets followed reports, particularly by CNN, about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asking the FBI to help the administration discredit reporting on the alleged ties of officials in President Donald Trump’s administration to Russia. CNN relied on anonymous officials in the White House for the report.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump condemned the press. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.” (Of course, as was immediately highlighted, the Trump White House held a briefing where unnamed officials spoke to media earlier on February 24. The administration is only upset because CNN’s reporting undermines the party line.)
What was done by the White House is unquestionably objectionable, however, let’s consider what this truly undermines: access journalism.
All of these outlets are deeply upset that the Trump administration does not grant them the same access as Breitbart Media. They do not like how Trump treats these outlets like adversaries when just a year ago President Barack Obama had no problem with welcoming them into the White House.
But what is being lost by not being allowed to have Spicer answer questions in off-camera briefings? What do these outlets really think Spicer is going to tell them that is not pure fabrication?
The real grist for stories will continue to come from sources in the Trump administration, who make disclosures to the press. Sometimes those disclosures will include drafts of memos or executive orders, documents which give the public crucial details on policy making.
But the dominant culture of the press recoils at the thought of maintaining an adversarial posture toward the United States government. Its managing editors, leading reporters, and top columnists covet opportunities to socialize with officials in power.
To most press at outlets like CNN, there is a belief that the White House typically needs them to get their message out to the people. Trump is showing outlets that he will get his message out through outlets that will transmit what he has to say by amplifying and cheering his agenda.
The Trump White House does not need any of these outlets they are fighting. They will go directly to the American people, with or without the support of CNN.
While Trump’s rhetoric and conduct is certainly extreme, one may view it as an escalation of practices the Obama administration utilized.
As David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review detailed in 2014, the Obama White House was known to produce YouTube clips that were press releases that allowed them to “circumvent journalists en route to mass audiences.”
“On Tuesday, for example, after learning that The Intercept planned to run a story on the growth of the U.S. terrorism database, the National Counterterrorism Center shared select information with the Associated Press, which ran its decidedly less comprehensive piece minutes before The Intercept published,” Uberti noted.
Reporters at all levels of government have faced the growth of political public relations machines that aggressively squeeze them or more subtly coerce them into following some unspoken rules.
Press secretary Joshua Earnest actually lectured the Washington Post for its use of anonymous sources and sought to embarrass the Post when its reporter was absent that day during the press briefing.
On July 21, 2014, the press secretary engaged in hypocrisy similar to the hypocrisy on display today: he condemned anonymous sources while the White House invited reporters to hop on a call with anonymous officials from the Obama administration.
So what happens if these outlets are not allowed in these meetings but only conservative media operations like Breitbart are invited? What if a handful of smaller outlets essentially become de facto propaganda channels for the Trump White House to spread through their most dedicated and loyal followers?
It is not the job of any media outlet to spread the message of the White House to the public. The only reason that is what many journalists think is expected is because they believe if they are too tough on White House officials it will make it harder for them to maintain access.
Neither of the outlets blocked today from this off-camera briefing should want to have any kind of a relationship with Trump that he personally lauds. The way Trump sees the press, it is nearly impossible that any journalists embracing their role as a watchdog of government will ever be welcome while he is president.
White House attacks on media outlets are badges of honor. They help outlets make the case that allegations from anonymous officials are probably very close to the truth. And they may push journalists to do more work accumulating sources and tracking down stories, which can only improve the culture of journalism in the United States.