Today the news broke that Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency banned reporters from CNN, the Associated Press and E&E, an environmental trade publication, from personally attending a public department conference on water contamination. When the AP reporter refused to leave the building, security guards physically forced her exit and “shoved” her out the building’s door.
After reporters took to Twitter to complain, the agency eventually backtracked and allowed the three journalists to attend the afternoon session of the conference. So this episode ended tolerably well.
But it is quite possibly representative of something much larger, a contempt and dislike for the press that has characterized both Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.
This is, after all, not how we do things in the United States — except, apparently in 2018, it is. And we can’t say we weren’t warned.
From the beginning of his campaign for president, Trump evinced a frightening contempt for the press. He advocated making it easier to sue journalists and news organizations for libel, and threatened to sue news organizations that produced factually correct reports about his business practices. He suggested someone should sue Rolling Stone and Huffington Post to “put them out of business!” He routinely tweeted out invective toward reporters whose work he did not like. He almost certainly cruelly mimicked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a joint disease. Journalists covering his campaign rallies were heckled by crowds and often felt threatened.
The pattern only worsened after Trump’s election. Last summer, at a rally in Phoenix held shortly after the violent Nazi protests in Charlottesville, he called reporters “sick people” who “don’t like our country.” He has threatened to “take away credentials” of reporters who report “Fake News,” which he explicitly defines as news about himself that’s negative. It is widely believed that the administration’s opposition to the proposed merger between Time Warner and AT&T is not based on concerns about monopolization as claimed but pique at CNN.
At times, this behavior has been contagious among Republicans. When Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after he asked a question that Gianforte preferred not to answer, voters elected him to office anyway. Even after Gianforte pled guilty to misdemeanor assault, one Montana politico opined that he “would have shot” the reporter.
As for today’s event, more than 200 people attended the summit on water contaminants. A spokesman for the EPA subsequently claimed there wasn’t space in the room where the event was held to make room for the journalists. Why these journalists weren’t “invited” while others were permitted to attend is also unclear, but Slate helpfully rounded up a list of potentially embarrassing stories to Pruitt broken by the three organizations.
No one – least of all me – would pretend the press is not often annoying. The gig, when done correctly, is adversarial. There is no way around that. It calls for asking uncomfortable questions of people in positions of power, be they local government officials or the president of the United States. Demanding public officials be accountable is the essence of democracy.
What role did Pruitt play in today’s events? We don’t yet know. But we do know that Pruitt has a less than comfortable relationship with the public. When Pruitt got caught insisting on first-class seating when flying on agency business, his office claimed Pruitt upgraded because of threats. It subsequently emerged that Pruitt felt threatened by ordinary Americans who approached him to complain about policy.
Perhaps what happened today was simply a misunderstanding — an adviser ultimately called the AP journalist involved to apologize and said he was looking into how the situation was handled. But it should go without saying this is not how anyone attempting to attend a government meeting should be treated. That it occurred at all is extremely concerning.