Last October, NBC News reported something unfavorable about President Trump. A tweet wasn’t far behind:
Media critics, First Amendment types and many others decried the tweet — and pointed out that the White House would have trouble blocking the work of NBC News. The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), the group that advocates for media access to the president and organizes an annual dinner of some fame, didn’t see fit to issue a formal opinion on the president’s quite-clear spasm of authoritarianism.
Wednesday was different. President Trump tweeted this:
This time, the WHCA followed with a statement from President Margaret Talev:
Some may excuse the president’s inflammatory rhetoric about the media, but just because the president does not like news coverage does not make it fake. A free press must be able to report on the good, the bad, the momentous and the mundane, without fear or favor. And a president preventing a free and independent press from covering the workings of our republic would be an unconscionable assault on the First Amendment.
Strong verbs, simple sentences, a constitutional reference and an unmistakable message: Have we heard anything so fiery from the WHCA during the Trump presidency? It doesn’t appear that way. For examples:
• In February 2017, certain news organizations appeared to be sidelined from a “gaggle” — basically a mini-briefing — at the White House. The association announced, “The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House. We encourage the organizations 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.”
• In May 2017, President Trump riffed on the idea of bagging White House press briefings. The WHCA responded:
White House briefings and press conferences provide substantive and symbolic opportunities for journalists to pose questions to officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. That exercise, conducted in full view of our republic’s citizens, is clearly in line with the spirit of the First Amendment. Doing away with briefings would reduce accountability, transparency, and the opportunity for Americans to see that, in the U.S. system, no political figure is above being questioned. The White House Correspondents’ Association would object to any move that would threaten those constitutionally-protected principles.
• In June 2017, on-camera press briefings appeared endangered. The WHCA released a workmanlike statement on its negotiations to ensure their survival.
At least from an institutional perspective, the focus on access made sense. Founded in 1914, the group exists to get its member organizations close to the president. “The WHCA Board, drawn from across the news media, advocates for all of our members so that they have what they need to be able to convey an accurate impression of what is happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whether they tell stories through television images, photographs, sound on the radio, or text, the WHCA works with their interests – and those of their viewers, readers and listeners – at heart,” notes the WHCA’s website.
So what to do about a president who allows access but uses the full weight of his office to discredit journalism itself? Issue a condemnation every time Trump blasts “fake news”? That might require more staffing. “The ongoing public undercutting and assault of the free press is really problematic,” Talev told the Erik Wemple Blog for a January post on this conundrum. “It’s troubling to me as a journalist and troubling to me as an American, but it’s something we have to do our jobs in the face of for now. … It’s very troubling to have the most powerful figure in the U.S. or in the world telling people that they can’t trust facts. Nothing works if you can’t trust facts. Society doesn’t work if you can’t trust facts.”
During the presidential election, the Trump campaign did blacklist certain outlets, including The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Univision, the Des Moines Register and others. The threat, accordingly, comes from a position of experience.
Should the president choose to follow through on the denial of credentials, a backlash awaits. “There are certain boundaries to what’s appropriate and we stand very firmly against any effort, even a rhetorical effort, to restrict Americans’ access to information,” said Talev in an appearance on CNN on Wednesday afternoon. All this back-and-forth regarding credentials, however, inflates their actual value. News organizations that were barred from Trump campaign events still covered the campaign aggressively. Those organizations, likewise, would continue sniffing out stories at the White House regardless of whether they’re allowed to cross into the briefing room or shout questions at one of those ceremonial events. If there’s one thing that the past 15 months have taught us, after all, it’s that there are enough appointees who are so intent on distancing themselves from White House chicanery that they’ll get on the phone and blab. Given the White House’s turnover rate, too, there’s a nice pool of sources out there. No amount of credential-revocation will change those that.
And hey, what would Trump do in the White House without a mob of media people hanging on his every word? Wrote former tabloid reporter Susan Mulcahy during the campaign, “Today, Trump calls reporters ‘disgusting.’ That’s the biggest lie of all. I’d argue that his longest and most intimate relationship is with the media, who offer so many opportunities for him to gaze at the person he loves most.”
The president was doing just that on Wednesday, at a Cabinet meeting. After he finished some remarks about world affairs, reporters asked him some questions. “Do you deserve the Nobel Prize?” the president was asked. “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” responded Trump.
As ever, the president’s ongoing effort to poison American journalism among his followers is far more lethal than anything he could do with White House press passes.