The White House blocked a number of news organizations from attending an informal briefing Friday, a rare and surprising move that came amid President Trump’s escalating war against the media.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer banned reporters from CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed from attending a “gaggle,” a non-televised briefing, but gave access to a number of other reporters, including those representing conservative outlets.
The White House said the decision was not made to exclude journalists from organizations that have been the most critical of Trump in their reporting in favor of those who are more favorable. Although the invited included Fox News, Breitbart and the Washington Times — all considered sympathetic to the administration — the approved list also included CBS, NBC, ABC, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Time and the Associated Press.
However, reporters from AP and Time decided against attending the briefing in protest of the exclusion of other news outlets.
The unusual ban came the same day that Trump, appearing at an annual gathering of conservatives, launched another round of complaints about the news media. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump called reporters “dishonest” and “fake” and denounced the use of anonymous sources in reports about his administration.
Trump himself has served as an anonymous source on occasion and in the early 1990s occasionally posed as a fake anonymous source to promote himself. His blast about anonymous sourcing came a few hours after senior White House officials demanded anonymity from reporters in a briefing to criticize a CNN report that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had asked FBI officials to publicly disavow stories about Trump campaign aides’ contacts with Russian sources.
While Trump made lambasting the media a regular feature of his presidential campaign — and banned about a dozen news organizations from covering his rallies — he seemed to ratchet up his rhetoric last week by tweeting that various news outlets were “the enemy of the American people.” He repeated that description on Friday in his speech at CPAC. And 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!”
By late afternoon, amid widespread outrage among news organizations over the banning of reporters, the White House’s press office suggested that its action wasn’t exclusionary.
“We invited the pool so everyone was represented,” deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders wrote in an email. “We decided to add a couple of additional people beyond the pool for an expanded pool. Nothing more than that.”
The “pool” is a small group of reporters that provides notes and transcripts of meetings with officials to a wider group of journalists. Reporters representing radio, TV, print and wire-service outlets serve in the pool on a rotating basis.
It’s not unusual for the White House to handpick groups of reporters for some meetings. President Obama, for example, invited select columnists to the White House for off-the-record conversations. It is unusual, if not unprecedented, to have a pool of reporters cover a publicly announced White House briefing.
But when Spicer and his deputies decided to expand the pool to include several hand-picked outlets, reporters from outside the group sought inclusion, too — and were denied.
Sanders did not explain why the White House picked the outlets it did and rejected the others.
The selected group included One America News Network, a small, conservative cable network that was founded in 2013 and has given favorable coverage to Trump. Among those excluded was CNN, which on Thursday broke the story of Priebus’s contacts with the FBI, and the New York Times, which first reported last week on alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign advisers and Russian officials. BuzzFeed, another excluded outlet, was the sole publisher of a 35-page dossier containing unproven allegations about Trump, including supposed compromising personal information.
Spicer’s move was almost immediately denounced by news organizations as unfair and a step toward throttling the press.
“It’s not acceptable,” CNN anchor Jake Tapper said on his afternoon program. “In fact, it’s petulant … This White House doesn’t seem to value a free press. There’s a word for this. The word is ‘un-American.’ ”
Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, protested the decision in a statement that read in part, “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. . . . Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”
The Washington Post did not have a reporter present at the time of the gaggle. However, Executive Editor Martin Baron said it was “appalling” that other journalists were blocked.
“This is an undemocratic path that the administration is traveling,” Baron said. “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.”
National Press Club President Jeffrey Ballou said it was “deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable that the White House is actively running a campaign against a constitutionally enshrined free and independent press … The action harks back to the darkest chapters of U.S. history and reeks of undemocratic, un-American and unconstitutional censorship.”
But Ari Fleischer, who served as George W. Bush’s press secretary, said the media was overreacting. Trump, he said during an interview on CNN, has been highly accessible to reporters even as he has criticized them. “My point here is that the press has this tendency to think everything’s about themselves, to hyperventilate [that] the First Amendment’s under threat because of the things he says,” Fleischer said. “But then they ignore all the things he does that are tremendous for the media. He is making journalism interesting and great again.”