Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

‘Enemy of the people’

Trump has escalated his open war against a critical media and banned, for the first time, prominent news organisations from attending the daily White House briefing

‘Enemy of the people’
‘Enemy of the people’

In an unprecedented escalation in his declared war against the so-called “liberal” US media, the White House decided Friday, 24 February, to ban CNN and other news outlets from attending an off-camera briefing that other reporters were handpicked to attend. The move raised alarm among media organisations and First Amendment watchdogs.

The decision struck veteran White House journalists as unprecedented in the modern era, and escalated tensions in the already fraught relationship between the Trump administration and the press.

The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, BuzzFeed, the BBC and The Guardian were also among those excluded from the meeting, which was held in White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office. The meeting, which is known as a gaggle, was held in lieu of the daily televised Q&A session in the White House briefing room.

When reporters from these news organisations tried to enter Spicer’s office for the gaggle, they were told they could not attend because they were not on the list of attendees.

In a brief statement defending the move, administration spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the White House “had the pool there so everyone would be represented and get an update from us today”.

Hours earlier, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, President Trump mocked and disparaged the news media. He said that much of the press represents “the enemy” of the people. He said: “They are the enemy of the people because they have no sources,” Trump said. “They just make them up when there are none.” He also said reporters “shouldn’t be allowed” to use unnamed sources.

While Trump made lambasting the media a regular feature of his presidential campaign — and banned about a dozen news organisations from covering his rallies — he seemed to ratchet up his rhetoric over the past week. Late Friday night, Trump kept up his Twitter attack, writing: “FAKE NEWS media knowingly doesn’t tell the truth. A great danger to our country. The failing @nytimes has become a joke. Likewise @CNN. Sad!”

Late Saturday, Trump announced he would not attend the annual, long-standing White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, scheduled for 29 April.

White House Spokeswoman Sanders conceded that the decision reflected tensions between the president and the media.

“I think it’s… kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there,” Sanders told This Week host George Stephanopoulos.

Trump would skip the dinner to instead “spend the night focussed on what he can do to help better America”, Sanders said.

“You know, one of the things we say in the South [is] ‘If a Girl Scout egged your house, would you buy cookies from her?’ I think that this is a pretty similar scenario,” Sanders added. “There’s no reason for him to go in and sit and pretend like this is going to be just another Saturday night.”

Shortly after Trump’s announcement, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which sponsors the annual event, said in an email that the dinner would take place without Trump’s attendance.

The dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic,” said Jeff Mason, WHCA president. “We look forward to shining a spotlight at the dinner on some of the best political journalism of the past year and recognising the promising students who represent the next generation of our profession.”

The White House press pool usually includes representatives from one television outlet, one radio outlet and one print outlet, as well as reporters from a few wire services. In this case, four of the five major television networks — NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News — were invited and attended the meeting, while only CNN was blocked.

And while The New York Times was kept out, conservative media organisations Breitbart News, The Washington Times and One America News Network were also allowed in.

“This is an unacceptable development by the Trump White House,” CNN said in a statement. “Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don’t like. We’ll keep reporting regardless.”

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet wrote, “nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organisations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”

The White House Press Office had informed reporters earlier that the traditional, on-camera press briefing would be replaced by a gaggle in Spicer’s office, reporters in attendance said. Asked about the move by the WHCA, the White House said it would take the press pool and invite others as well.

The WHCA protested that decision on the grounds that it would unfairly exclude certain news organisations, the reporters said. The White House did not budge, and when reporters arrived at Spicer’s office, White House communications officials only allowed in reporters from specific media outlets.

Asked during the gaggle whether CNN and The New York Times were blocked because the administration was unhappy with their reporting, Spicer responded: “We had it as pool, and then we expanded it, and we added some folks to come cover it. It was my decision to expand the pool.”

Several news outlets spoke out against the White House’s decision.

“The Wall Street Journal strongly objects to the White House’s decision to bar certain media outlets from today’s gaggle,” a Journal spokesman said. “Had we known at the time, we would not have participated and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future.”

The White House move was called “appalling” by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, who said the Trump administration is on “an undemocratic path”.

Politico editor-in-chief John Harris said that “selectively excluding news organisations from White House briefings is misguided.”

Said BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith: “While we strongly object to the White House’s apparent attempt to punish news outlets whose coverage it does not like, we won’t let these latest antics distract us from continuing to cover this administration fairly and aggressively.”

The Associated Press said it believes “the public should have as much access to the president as possible”.

The WHCA also protested the move.

“The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House,” it said in a statement. “We encourage the organisations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”

CNN anchor Jake Tapper sharply attacked the White House. “It’s not acceptable, in fact it’s petulant,” he fumed. “And indicative of a lack of basic understanding of how an adult White House functions.” 

Tapper used Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s words against him, when he said on 16 December the White House would not ban any media organisation. Spicer had said, “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. I think that’s what makes a democracy, a democracy versus a dictatorship.”

Tapper continued, “this White House does not seem to respect the idea of accountability, this White House does not seem to value an independent press. There is a word for that line of thinking. The word is un-American.”

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