It’s difficult to muster up much sympathy for the plight of an obnoxious, entitled network TV reporter who’s badgering the president, refusing to hand over the microphone to a young intern, and preventing other reporters in the room from asking their questions.
But the issue surrounding CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta’s recent confrontation with President Trump, and the White House’s remarkable decision to revoke his press access, has far deeper implications for the citizens beyond just stripping a single reporter of his credentials.
It represents an escalation in the war of accountability between our elected officials and the journalists attempting to hold them responsible for their words and actions.
It’s one thing for the president to be upset with the coverage from a particular network or newspaper. Very few public officials embrace tough questions and perceived negative coverage.
But it’s all together another issue to dictate to news organizations which reporters they can send to represent them and ask questions.
If public officials have carte blanche to select the reporters who get to ask them questions, then one of two things will happen: Either the news organizations will be forced to send reporters who might not be as competent or as tough in demanding answers from those officials, or the reporters themselves will shy away from asking tough questions and pressing for answers for fear of losing their own access and right to ask questions.
The chilling effect of such actions won’t stop at the presidential level. In fact, it’s already filtering down to the state and local levels.
Last week, for instance, Iowa Congressman Steve King singled out reporters from The Des Moines Register, the Storm Lake Times and the Huffington Post to exclude from covering his election night appearance, with his staff saying he wouldn’t grant credentials to a “leftist propaganda media outlet with no concern for reporting the truth.” That’s the same Des Moines Register that has 17 Pulitzer Prizes for its reporting and editorial writing.
Last month in a small city in Minnesota, a city clerk used profanities and physically threatened a reporter from the Northern Light Region newspaper who raised a challenge under the Open Meetings Law. The clerk then abruptly ended the meeting while City Council members did nothing to stop it.
Here in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuts out the press by not holding regular press availabilities, replacing them with heavily orchestrated “conference calls” on limited topics, during which only a few select reporters are allowed to ask questions or are only allowed to ask questions suggested by Cuomo’s staff. Last year, the governor went more than five straight months without meeting with the press contingent based at the state capitol.
He’s also singled out reporters for criticism who represent organizations with whom he has unrelated disputes.
When other public officials see their peers getting away with this kind of conduct, it encourages them to act this way as well. And when members of the public support the politicians over the journalists, they’re only contributing to the growing disconnect between themselves and their representatives.
This is the kind of conduct to discourage dissent used by public officials in oppressive regimes in other countries.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which defends press freedoms around the world, reports numerous occasions in which reporters have been prohibited from questioning government officials and opposition leaders. Countries have used their own laws to punish news organizations for coverage and have jailed or killed reporters who didn’t comply.
Just this week in the African nation of Gabon, a media regulator (that tells you something right there) suspended a newspaper for three months and banned its editor from working for six months over an article about President Ali Bongo’s health.
RWB in August documented cases of assault on freedom of the press in 32 countries, including authoritarian regimes in China, Turkey, Iran and Algeria.
Despite President Trump’s self-serving rhetoric, the press is not the “enemy of the people.”
The relationship between the press and public officials is naturally and appropriately confrontational.
The role of journalists in society is to hold public officials accountable, whether the officials like their tactics or not.
When those public officials feel free to select the reporters who cover them, to only answer the questions they want to answer, and to punish those who offend them, the public loses.