Donald Trump came to his first press conference since being elected president loaded for bear, and the press — or rather, certain media outlets — were in his cross hairs.
After giving famously candid and casual press conferences quite regularly throughout the election, Trump has gone decidedly dark after winning, preferring instead to perform a “thank-you tour” for his supporters and engage in Twitter spats with journalists rather than take any of their questions.
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On Wednesday, he made it more than clear that as president, he will not take kindly to the media, well, doing its job. And that’s a terrifying prospect for those of us who think free speech and a free press are pretty important pillars of a democracy.
First, let’s clear some things up. Donald Trump is angry that BuzzFeed, which he called a “failing pile of garbage” in his presser, published intelligence reports detailing some pretty lurid — and totally unverified — stories about a Trump trip to Russia.
This anger is warranted. A BuzzFeed statement regarding the decision said it was “not an easy or simple call” to publish those documents, but in fact it should have been. Publishing anonymously sourced rumors is not what credible journalism outfits do, leaving Americans to, as BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith wrote, “make up their own minds.” That is why no other outfits published the documents previously, even though they’ve been circulating for some time.
But Trump also blamed CNN for pushing “fake news.” That’s a total falsehood. CNN published a report about the documents being shown to President Obama and Trump, but didn’t include any of the unflattering allegations about Trump, precisely because they were unverified.
Nonetheless, Trump was not pleased, and, after repeatedly implying as much at his presser, he shouted at CNN reporter Jim Acosta that he would not take his questions because “you are fake news.”
In full disclosure, I work at CNN, as a political commentator. But had Fox or MSNBC or CBS or any other network been the target of Trump’s childish and troubling tantrum, I would be equally outraged.
BuzzFeed’s irresponsible decision to publish the allegations had nothing to do with CNN’s legitimate report. Trump was highly critical of CNN throughout the course of the election, however, even though his own staff says it’s the network he watches the most. His animosity has spilled out on to social media, where Trump supporters baselessly and routinely bash the network and the press in general.
Turning the people against the media is politically useful, for sure, and Trump is hardly the first to play this tune. But no president has been so hostile to the basic role of the press and its importance. It’s not unimaginable that Trump will try banning networks he dislikes from White House press briefings.
But there’s no difference between banning an outlet and refusing to take a question from a reporter at a press conference out of spite.
In 2010, when the Obama administration refused Fox News’ White House pool reporter an interview with “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg, pool reporters from other networks banded together and refused to interview him.
As CBS’ White House correspondent put it, “All the networks said, that’s it, you’ve crossed the line.” Another bureau chief said, “It’s all for one and one for all.”
It worked. Fox got the interview.
That spirit has apparently evaporated over the past few years. A spirit of competitive edge and access above all has reoriented the press to be “every man for himself” instead.
If Trump bans a news organization from a press conference or refuses to take questions from an outlet that has accurately covered him, every other outlet should walk out or refuse to give him airtime or print space.
If he thinks he can silence the press, strong-arm journalists into printing only favorable reports or replace the press with tweets, every outlet should protest, not only the ones he is punishing.
We are at a crossroads in our country, and what we do in response to Donald Trump’s unprecedented antipathy toward one of our most cherished and important institutions — a free press — will define who we are as a democracy. At a time of division and rancor, the press must come together around this common cause: saving itself.
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