Sample the outrage:
- “Every administration tries to manipulate the press, but this is the most hostile to the media that [an administration] has been in United States history,” said veteran reporter Bob Franken.
- The administration is “more restrictive” and also “more dangerous” to media outlets than any other in U.S. history, said USA Today’s Susan Page.
- “This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that,” said veteran TV journo Bob Schieffer.
- “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said New York Times reporter David E. Sanger.
- “It’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press,” said Margaret Sullivan.
- “In the past, we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business,” said former ABC News correspondent Ann Compton.
- “This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with,” said Jill Abramson.
Such affinity for superlatives! Seasoned media-watchers can determine quite easily that those comments don’t pertain to the Trump White House, which lacks the discipline to execute secrecy. They all pan the media policies of the Obama White House.
They provide some perspective, too, on the study of relative media-obstruction. Franken’s objections came after photographers complained that Obama staffers had excluded them from certain events, giving preferential treatment to official White House photographer Pete Souza. Others, including Page, Sullivan and Abramson, relate to the Obama administration’s insistence on pursuing leak investigations. “Over the past eight years,” wrote New York Times investigative reporter James Risen late last year, “the [Obama] administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistleblowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.”
Such condemnation rings 100 percent true today, as well as a touch mild.
As first reported by the New York Times, President Trump in a February meeting suggested that FBI Director James B. Comey seek to imprison reporters for publishing classified information. “The comments attributed to President Trump cross a dangerous line,” said Bruce Brown, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s an “unprecedented” departure from the norm in Washington, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Poynter.
There’s no equivalence here. In the Obama cases denounced by Risen, the authorities went after the leakers — that is, the government officials who passed along information to others. Though these proceedings sometimes ensnared reporters in subpoenas and other peril — in an affidavit in a leak case, the Justice Department fingered Fox News correspondent Fox News correspondent James Rosen as a “co-conspirator” in a violation of the Espionage Act — they did not prosecute media figures, as the alleged Trump directive sought to do. As we explained in this post, U.S. law has long recognized a bright line between a government official leaking information (not cool) and a news organization that merely publishes it (cool).
That Trump urged imprisoning media types for publishing classified information raises one of two possibilities. One is that the president has no clue about the legal distinction between leaking and publishing. The other is that he knows about it but doesn’t care to uphold it. As with many ignorant or ill-intentioned scenarios, both options are horrifying.
Of course, extremism in media-hostility is the specialty of this administration. Chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon declared the media “the opposition party” and instructed it to “keep its mouth shut” and turn its attention to the mood of the country. Trump has said that “fake news” organizations — CNN and the New York Times among them — are the “enemy” of the American public. News organizations have stated that the White House won’t return their inquiries when they’re pursuing investigative stories. The White House orchestrated a smear job against a Politico reporter for doing his job.
A few months ago, the White House excluded key organs of the mainstream media from a briefing. CNN, Politico, the New York Times, BuzzFeed and the Los Angeles Times — they all found themselves outside of an “expanded pool” that included White House-friendly outlets such as Breitbart and the Washington Times. New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet struck a combative tone: “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties.”
On the sunny side, reporters have been able to reach White House staffers. “For all the vitriol publicly,” New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller said this year at a Columbia Journalism Review conference, “it’s a fairly accessible administration, even to the ‘failing’ New York Times. So, and I could tell you that there are many times you get attacked by publicly by a certain person and then that person is talking to us privately.”
Okay, but what about that access? What’s it getting us? Scoldings and flimsy allegations of “fake news,” for one. And then a lot of misrepresentations and lies. “Access is less useful when folks are trying to confuse the public,” said CNN’s Brian Stelter at the CJR event. Persistent lies and misstatements don’t accord with an unfettered press. Nor do Trump administration decisions to not release White House visitor logs — as did its predecessor — and to stop publishing other data on government websites.
Nor does Trump’s longing for imprisoned reporters sound out of character. Instead of addressing the specifics of the scandals that have beset them, Trump and his people have often focused instead on the leaks that exposed them. After a series of disclosures triggered the February ouster of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who misled top officials about his communication with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Trump bellowed: “From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked; it’s criminal action. It’s a criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on,” the president said at a February news conference. Mini-leak investigations have been reported, like the “phone check” conducted by press secretary Sean Spicer against communications office staffers. After reporters found out about Trump’s chats with certain foreign dignitaries, Spicer said the White House was looking into the leaks.
So, how to characterize this administration? Is it the most-most dangerous in U.S. history? For the purposes of this piece, the Erik Wemple Blog circled back with the users of superlatives during the Obama administration a couple of times — once in early March, and again this week. Do they look on those statements with fresh perspective? Should they have left some room in their comments for the sort of challenges posed by Trump?
Abramson: “My case vis-à-vis President Obama — what I was specifically addressing were the … criminal leak investigations,” said Abramson in March. She stands by the evaluation and credits Baquet and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron for practicing restraint in how they respond to Trump’s attacks. “They don’t want to be seen as combatants in some battle against the president.” Though Abramson, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, says she wouldn’t change the substance of what she said about the Obama administration, “When I look at some of the things I said, I might have edited some of the things and adjusted the tone.”
Asked this week whether she felt the Trump administration is eclipsing her judgment of the Obama administration, she replied, “I would, but I hate the criminalizing of reporting by any president.”
Sullivan: “I think it was true because of the Obama administration’s unprecedented use of the Espionage Act,” said Sullivan, who now works at The Post, in March. Now: “In terms of actions, I still stand by it. But I’m very concerned about what Trump has reportedly said in the Comey memo — especially when the president seems so admiring of free-press enemies like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. And I was very concerned well before this week.”
Page: “My comment during a panel discussion was that the Obama administration was the most dangerous in terms of leaks investigations. The end of the sentence has sometimes been clipped. I noted that the Obama administration had prosecuted more leaks cases than all other presidents combined,” wrote Page in an email. And what about the rhetoric? “I’ll leave that to folks with more wisdom than I have. (It’s a big crowd.)”
Asked whether she thought Trump had surpassed the danger of President Barack Obama, Page said this week, “Yes, I do.”
Franken, this week: “Donald Trump is now in full panic mode, exhibiting his classic ‘Fight or Lie’ responses. When it comes to Presidents’ hostility to media, he’s in a crass by himself.”
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director for Obama from 2013 to 2015, told the Erik Wemple Blog months ago about journalists’ concerns: “It’s laughable, in terms of the amount of anxiety they had about the White House vs. what they’ve inherited with Trump.” As Trump himself would say, they inherited a “mess.” And though things look bleak, media experts might consider showing some restraint in their rhetoric. Because, yes, it could get worse: Next time, we could have a competent president who wants to lock up reporters.