Opinion: Donald Trump’s latest step toward tyranny
There’s a name for a government that bars media outlets it views as unsympathetic from access to its workings.
It’s not “democracy.”
Just ask White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, as someone did in December, shortly before Spicer accepted his current post as President Donald Trump’s proselytizer-in-chief.
During the campaign, Trump had revoked the credentials of reputable outlets media outlets at will, sometimes for weeks on end. Asked whether the White House would continue that practice, Spicer scoffed at the notion:
“Look, there’s a big difference between a campaign where it is a private venue using private funds and a government entity,” he said. “I think we have a respect for the press when it comes to the government. That is something you can’t ban an entity from. Conservative, liberal or otherwise, that’s what make a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”
But that was December.
On Friday, hours after his boss had resumed his slashing attack on the press in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Spicer barred The New York Times, the L.A. Times, BuzzFeed, Politico and CNN — established mainstream news agencies with longstanding White House credentials — from a scheduled media briefing. The right-leaning Breitbart, Washington Times and One America News were admitted, as were representatives of several other mainstream media outlets approved by the White House.
It’s true that press conferences rarely offer profound insight; journalists’ most valuable reporting is most often done elsewhere. But such briefings provide insight into the administration’s decision-making and agenda, and offer journalists an opportunity to obtain statements on the record. And there’s a greater principle at stake.
It’s easy to dismiss Spicer’s move as another puerile provocation in the new administration’s campaign to cast itself as the people’s champion in a war with the establishment press. But as Spicer himself observed, this is not how elected leaders do business in democracy whose constitution explicitly protects the press from government retaliation.
“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, noted in a statement. The White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the press corps, condemned the administration for its action, and reporters for the Associated Press and Time magazine, who were invited to participate in the briefing, boycotted it in protest of their colleagues’ exclusion.
At best, the unprecedented exclusion of reputable news organizations for the presumed crime of reporting aggressively and skeptically on the administration’s activities was an impulsive (and ill-considered) ploy to curry favor with CPAC, with whose membership the new president is anxious to establish his anti-establishment bona fides.
At worst, it’s a premeditated attack on an institution this nation’s founders recognized as integral to the democratic process — a first strike by a would-be authoritarian uncomfortable with the checks and balances established by the Constitution and reinforced by more than two centuries of American jurisprudence.
That’s the same Constitution President Trump took a solemn oath to uphold last month. He can begin to honor that commitment by reminding himself that the White House he seeks to run like a private country club is not his house, but the American people’s. It is the people’s interest the White House press corps exists to protect, and the press corps’ continued access to the operations of the executive branch that the new president is obliged to protect if he takes his oath seriously.
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