Observers label attempt to cozy up to favorable outlets ‘unprecedented’ attack on free press.
On the campaign trail and in office, U.S. President Donald Trump has made attacking the press one of his political trademarks. But by restricting the access of certain media, his White House took things a step further, triggering an outcry.
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Politico—a string of major U.S. media were denied access on Friday to the daily White House briefing, while smaller outlets that have provided favorable coverage of the Trump administration, such as Breitbart and One America News, received a green light to attend. For once, the event was not held on-camera in the main White House briefing room, but instead in the office of the president’s spokesman Sean Spicer—and for a select group of handpicked media.
The White House Correspondents Association said it was “protesting strongly” against the decision, and would bring it up with the administration, while several of the media affected have pushed back hard against the administration’s move.
The New York Times described the White House decision as “an unmistakable insult to democratic ideals,” while a CNN statement called it “an unacceptable development.” In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times warned that the incident had “ratcheted up the White House’s war on the free press” to a new level.
“Trump has betrayed some alarmingly authoritarian notions of the presidency over the past two years, and punishing organizations that run stories critical of the president falls right into that category,” the paper wrote.
Friday’s incident took on a particular resonance coming just hours after the Republican leader renewed his assault on the “fake” media, accusing major news outlets of fabricating sources and stories, and branding them “the enemy of the people.”
“They say that we can’t criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment, you know, they always bring up the First Amendment,” he told Republican supporters during a keynote speech.
Trump built his campaign on criticizing the mainstream U.S. press—most of which overtly opposed his election—as biased, and has intensified his rhetoric since taking office, routinely accusing the media of overstating his setbacks and downplaying his accomplishments. A week ago, at his first solo news conference, the 70-year-old launched a long diatribe at the dozens of journalists present, blaming their “dishonesty” for the troubles of his month-old administration.
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, a former head of the right-wing news site Breitbart, predicted on Thursday that relations with the media—which he dubs “the opposition”—would only get worse as the president rolls out his agenda.
It is not uncommon for Republican and Democratic administrations to brief a limited number of select reporters on specific themes. However, Friday’s event was initially billed as a regular briefing open to credentialed media before it was reconfigured as a closed briefing for the cherry-picked group of participants.
A number of outlets that regularly cover the White House, including newswires Reuters and Bloomberg, attended. They are part of what is known as the “pool,” a small group of journalists who have access to certain events and share the contents with other media.
The Associated Press boycotted the event in protest at the exclusion of certain colleagues. AFP was not included despite being part of the “pool.” Its journalist protested, and attended the briefing uninvited.
During the off-camera briefing, Spicer said that the White House has shown an “abundance of accessibility… making ourselves, our team and our briefing room more accessible than probably any previous administration.” He did not give an explanation for the selection made on Friday.
As protests erupted over the incident, a December interview re-emerged in which Spicer told Politico that the Trump White House would never ban a news outlet. “Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship,” he said.
Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for George W. Bush, said he viewed the White House’s stance as “unwise and counterproductive,” but also argued for the incident to be kept in perspective—pushing back against the suggestion that it threatened the constitutional First Amendment on press freedom. “Press secretaries need to meet with whole press,” he told CNN. “But beyond that, there is nothing unusual about presidents meeting with selected reporters, and White House staffs do it all the time too.”