Why you should care
Because the media could fight back.
Mr. Spicer: I’ll keep it short today. It’s been a productive morning. We’ll see what the afternoon brings.
OK, but what if we didn’t? The White House press secretary barred some mainstream news outlets from an informal briefing on Friday, signaling that the commander in chief’s battle with the media has a new weapon: blackout. America’s ranting-loving president has just thrown a fit. So let’s respond the way a mother of a tantrum-prone toddler would — by calling a timeout. Already, The New Yorker says it won’t attend White House press briefings until the exclusion is lifted. Should the rest of the media follow?
The press corps has to stand together — and stand with each other.
While some were shocked that the White House had reached such a new low in media relations, others weren’t even surprised. “Much like everything Trump does, I’m not surprised he’s done it, but I’m amazed he thinks it’s the way a president should behave,” says Hannah Dunleavy, deputy editor of the U.K.’s Standard Issue. “It’s the action of a spoiled child,” she says, and rather than making him look strong, she says it “makes him look weak, certainly to people watching from overseas.” But Dunleavy thinks it’s too late to replace Spicer with white noise. “The time to ignore [Trump] has gone,” she says, noting how she hopes all this will force the media to reflect on its role in the years to come.
Steven Roberts, an American journalist and professor of media and public affairs at GW, says that if the White House bars news outlets again, there should be a universal media response. If any are barred, “I think all the other reporters should boycott the briefing,” like the Associated Press and Time did on Friday, in solidarity. “The press corps has to stand together — and stand with each other,” says Roberts, noting that it should work both ways. After all, many news organizations objected, and rightly so, he adds, to efforts by President Obama’s team to label Fox News a Republican mouthpiece in 2009. “Same principle holds here.” U.K.-based Cambridge Business magazine writer Mike Scialom agrees that a disruptive approach like this, with outlets collectively refusing to attend if colleagues are excluded, is the best way to go.
But boycotting the briefing, Roberts adds, is different from refusing to report on the White House. That, he warns, “borders on censorship,” and the public needs to know what the White House is doing. Also, if only targeted outlets turn their backs, it would give right-leaning news outlets an edge. This would be “hugely counterproductive,” says Scialom, and “create a vacuum which the likes of Breitbart and Fox would happily exploit.” It would also fuel more media skepticism by adding “ridicule to the existing mix of suspicion and distrust,” he adds.
British columnist and broadcaster Robert Meakin says this flare-up was just a matter of time, and that it’s bound to get worse. He thinks Trump will “increasingly prove unwilling to subject himself to such professional levels of scrutiny” because genuine public accountability is “something Trump can do without.” Steven Livingston, GW media professor and senior fellow at Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, goes a step further, labeling Trump’s attack on the press as tactical. The objective? “Inoculating himself against what he suspects is going to be a very big and damaging story that is going to drop at any moment.” This way he can prepare his support base to reject any future media claims of White House wrongdoing.
So perhaps we can’t afford to turn our backs on this toddler; instead, we must meet Trump’s playground bullying head-on. “The answer is not to stop reporting on the White House; the answer is to report even more — more thoroughly,” says Roberts. Trump, he adds, has changed the media’s rules in three distinct ways: using fabrication; proving immune to correction and criticism; and taking his views directly to the people via the “TBN, the Trump Broadcasting Networking.”
The best way to respond? By being “more relentless and aggressive,” says Roberts. That’s no excuse for going too far, he warns, noting that journalists cannot lose sight of their core principles. “Even Trump deserves basic fairness. Aggressiveness is good, but if it tips over into bias and unfairness, we lose our credibility and ability to hold [Trump] to account.”
And that would simply play into his hand.