Media critic

White House press secretary Sean Spicer makes a statement to members of the media at the White House on Jan. 21. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Veteran reporters covering the White House reported this afternoon that the White House blocked CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed and Politico from a gaggle with White House press secretary Sean Spicer. This from Jim Sciutto, a CNN correspondent:

The Erik Wemple Blog asked the White House for a response to these allegations. Were these outlets, indeed, blocked from attending a gaggle? “Nothing of the sort,” came the reply from Deputy Communications Director Raj Shah. “The pool was invited and everyone was represented. In addition to the pool we decided to add a few* more reporters.” Those additions may correspond to the organizations identified by Sciutto — conservative outlets Breitbart, Washington Times and the One America News Network.

In a CNN broadcast, correspondent Sara Murray said that the White House had signaled that it would be hosting an “expanded pool” of reporters for an off-camera briefing with Spicer. According to Murray, this term tends to encompass “one representative from each news outlet.” Not the case in this situation: The White House handpicked the outlets that it wanted to let in and excluded others. “CNN was the only major television network that was blocked from accessing this briefing,” said Murray, adding that the White House reporters hadn’t received an explanation from the White House as to why it made the choices that it did.

Asked why it sat out the briefing after the White House-selected outlets were barred, Associated Press spokeswoman Lauren Easton passed along this statement: “AP believes the public should have as much access to the president as possible.” After weeks — actually many months — of sustaining steady and often unhinged rants from the president himself, media organizations responded forcefully to the White House’s approach to the briefing. The whole brouhaha, in fact, quickly became a statement-off among major media outlets.

CNN:

New York Times:

BuzzFeed (Editor 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.”

Politico (top editors John Harris and Carrie Budoff Brown, to staffers):

As you may have seen, POLITICO was one of several news organizations that were excluded from today’s “expanded pool” for the gaggle in White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office. We’ve reached out to the White House, and rest assured that we plan to very vigorously assert and defend an independent media’s right to cover the institution of the Presidency.

Selectively excluding news organizations from White House briefings is misguided and our expectation is that this action will not be repeated.

We have one of the largest teams in Washington covering this White House—a major editorial and financial commitment on behalf of our audience. This commitment is an enduring one, and our coverage of the Trump Administration will of course continue without interruption.

The Post (Executive Editor Martin Baron): “It’s appalling that the White House would exclude news outlets like the New York Times, CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and BuzzFeed from its publicly announced briefings. This is an undemocratic path that the administration is traveling. There is nothing to be gained from the White House restricting the public’s access to information. We are currently evaluating what our response will be if this sort of thing happens again.” (The Post was neither invited to nor excluded from the gaggle, according to a spokeswoman.)

A dissenting view came from a different era in the White House briefing room. Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for George W. Bush, said on CNN that the media was overreacting. “He meets with the press corps almost more than anybody I can think of. He held a marathon news conference, open to everybody, took questions from everybody. He’s done sit-down interviews with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Today show, 60 Minutes, Time magazine — you name it, he is tremendously accessible,” said Fleischer, adding that Donald Trump did an on-the-record session on Air Force One as well. “My point here … is that the press has this tendency to think everything’s about themselves, to hyperventilate, the First Amendment’s under threat, because of the things he says, but then they ignore all the things he does that are tremendous for the media. He is making journalism interesting and great again.”

Perspective from a fellow such as Fleischer is invaluable. Indeed, the president has made himself available to reporters. Indeed, the media can work itself into a tizzy over these things, in ways that later look like fingerling potatoes. Indeed, previous White Houses have made a practice of discriminating against various news outlets for various events. In this case, though, there’s something eerie about the circumstances. The excluded outlets, in particular CNN and the New York Times, have released some piercing journalism on Trump since his election in November — stories that have distracted from his administration’s various policy initiatives. In response, these two organizations have gotten scorn in large, capital letters, labeled “FAKE NEWS” by Trump himself. That the White House appears to have swapped out these organizations for outlets with a friendlier approach warrants a collective freak-out.

*In his original reply, Shah had said that they’d decided to add a “couple” of additional reporters and then asked that the statement be amended to read a “few.”