The Trump White House has imposed some of the most draconian restrictions on the news media in recent memory, from banning TV cameras during its daily briefings to cutting back the length and frequency of its sessions with reporters. The State Department and Pentagon have made similar cutbacks.
At the same time, the president himself has given just one full-length news conference since taking office.
And the protests from the news media have been . . . well, there haven’t been any protests.
Despite the administration’s unusual and increasing opacity, the reaction from reporters has been relatively muted. A few have noted it on Twitter, but none has taken up two suggestions offered by President Trump’s critics: Defy the camera ban and broadcast the briefings anyway, or boycott them.
There are signs, however, that reporters may be gradually finding their backbones.
For the third time in a row on Monday, the White House held its briefing “off camera,” meaning that live audio and video of the session were forbidden. Press secretary Sean Spicer permitted the news media to air audio but only after the briefing had concluded. Spicer has said the policy is designed to thwart reporters who are trying “to become YouTube stars” by asking “some snarky question.”
That didn’t stop CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta from asking Spicer to justify the camera ban Monday. “Why are the cameras off, Sean?” he asked repeatedly and out of turn.
Spicer ignored him, but Acosta kept at it.
“It’s a legitimate question,” chimed in April Ryan, a veteran reporter for the American Urban Radio Networks and a CNN contributor. A third reporter, Trey Yingst of One America News Network, asked Spicer for a response.
Spicer replied that he wanted to let the “president’s voice carry the day,” without competition from the briefings, and that “some days we’ll have [televised briefings], some days we won’t.”
Acosta said in an interview later that reporters have to start pushing back against the erosion of access. “My sense is that we are going to have to engage in a sustained, vocal protest of these restrictions so this does not become the new normal,” he said. “[I’m] not going to stop. It’s too important. This is not about me. This is not partisan. This is about coverage.”
He added, “What would the Republicans have said if Obama turned off the cameras during the Obamacare debate?”
Acosta asserted that CNN has been “blackballed” from asking questions at press briefings and news conferences — an alleged ban that calls to mind the Obama White House’s attempts to freeze out Fox News in 2009.
But Spicer called that claim “truly fake news” in an interview Monday afternoon. He said CNN reporter Joe Johns “was in my office this morning” and that another reporter, Athena Jones, asked a question in a briefing last week.
The board of the White House Correspondents’ Association met with Spicer and his top deputies on Monday — following a meeting Friday — to express concern about the camera ban and the curtailment of the briefings. The board made it clear that the status quo “was not acceptable,” said Jeff Mason, who heads the organization that represents White House reporters on access issues.
Mason distilled the association’s position in a letter to members following Friday’s meeting: “We believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and the need for transparency at the highest levels of government,” his letter said.
But other than advocating for more access, there isn’t much the White House Correspondents’ Association can do, Mason acknowledged. “It’s certainly not in my control,” he said. “I wish it were.”
It is debatable whether the news briefings are worth covering, given the limited answers and non-answers that Spicer and his principal deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have offered recently. In addition, some outlets — particularly the New York Times and The Washington Post — have been able to circumvent official White House channels with leaks from administration officials.
Nevertheless, reporters say the alternative — no briefings — would be worse, considering that the sessions typically are the only chance to ask administration officials questions in an open setting, live and on the record. They are especially useful to broadcast journalists, who need audio and video footage to tell their stories.
And, reporters generally say, a broad boycott is unlikely and perhaps even unwise.
For starters, White House journalists represent publications across the ideological spectrum and come from various disciplines (there are text, audio, still picture and broadcast journalists). That makes it unlikely that the entire press corps would act as one in any protest, said a veteran White House reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank opinion.
What’s more, boycotting briefings would probably backfire. It would enable the White House to paint reporters as hypocrites for demanding greater openness in the briefings but then refusing to show up for the ones that are held, he said.
In any case, the walls closed in a little more for journalists on Monday. Presidents have traditionally answered a few questions from the press at public ceremonies with foreign dignitaries. But when Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even that route to the president was cut off. The White House said Trump wasn’t answering questions.