Chill­ing ef­fect of Trump’s main­stream me­dia freeze

The Press - - Perspective - CHRIS CILLIZZA

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has held three news con­fer­ences with for­eign lead­ers over the past sev­eral weeks. The tra­di­tional for­mat for th­ese events is that the United States press gets two ques­tions and the for­eign press gets two. That’s it.

Here are the US news or­gan­i­sa­tions Trump has called on for ques­tions in each of those three pressers: Shinzo Abe/Trump (Feb 10): ❚ New York Post. ❚ Fox News. Justin Trudeau/Trump (Feb 13): ❚ ABC 7 (Sin­clair). ❚ Daily Caller. Ben­jamin Netanyahu/Trump (Feb 15): ❚ Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work. ❚ Town­hall.

All six of those out­lets are con­ser­va­tive or con­ser­va­tive lean­ing. In the case of the last two news con­fer­ences – Fe­bru­ary 13 and 15 – none of the ques­tions asked were about Michael Flynn, the re­cently de­parted na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, or the re­cent rev­e­la­tions re­gard­ing the reg­u­lar con­tact be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials. (CNN’s Jim Acosta shouted a ques­tion at Trump re­gard­ing Flynn at the end of Wed­nes­day’s news con­fer­ence, but Trump didn’t ac­knowl­edge it.)

That’s stun­ning given not only how cen­tral the Rus­sia story has been to the po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive over th­ese past five days, but also be­cause it has ma­jor reper­cus­sions on our na­tional se­cu­rity and the United States’ place in the world – two key fo­cuses for Trump’s pres­i­dency.

And, in case you’re won­der­ing, Trump’s se­lec­tion of who gets to ask ques­tions is not at all like how pres­i­dents Barack Obama and Ge­orge W Bush han­dled it. Thanks to NBC’s Car­rie Dann, we know whom Bush and Obama called on in their own early joint news con­fer­ences:

Obama/Cana­dian PM Stephen Harper (Feb 19, 2009):

❚ USA To­day.

❚ WSJ. Obama/British PM Gor­don Brown (Apr 1, 2009):

❚ AP.

❚ Reuters.

❚ Bloomberg. Bush/Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Vin­cente Fox (Feb 16, 2001):

❚ AP.

❚ Reuters.

❚ NBC News.

❚ FOX News. Bush/British PM Tony Blair (Feb 23, 2001):

❚ AP.

❚ Reuters.

❚ CNN.

❚ NBC News.

❚ Fox News.

Now. Sim­ply be­cause all six of the me­dia out­lets that Trump has called on of late have vary­ing de­grees of con­ser­va­tive bent doesn’t mean their re­porters aren’t se­ri­ous and good jour­nal­ists. But, there is a dif­fer­ence in tak­ing ques­tions from out­lets with a par­ti­san lean and tak­ing them from main­stream me­dia out­lets which are ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted to play­ing it straight.

If Obama had only taken ques­tions from The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Daily Kos and Rachel Mad­dow, con­ser­va­tives would be up in arms. And rightly so.

The sim­ple fact is that Trump is well within his rights to call on any mem­ber of the White House press corps that he chooses. And, call­ing on con­ser­va­tive out­lets is to­tally fair game. My is­sue is call­ing on only con­ser­va­tive out­lets as a means to avoid an­swer­ing or even en­gag­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions.

Both ques­tions from Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists in Wed­nes­day’s news con­fer­ence were about the Mid­dle East. That makes sense given that it was a joint presser be­tween the US and Israel. But, one of the two ques­tions needed to be about Flynn and the broader Rus­sia ques­tions cir­cling the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

As it was, Trump’s at­tack on ‘‘fake news’’ and his de­fence of Flynn – odd since he fired him – were the only things said about the topic at the news con­fer­ence. I can as­sure you that if Trump called on any ma­jor net­work, news­pa­per or ra­dio sta­tion, the Flynn/ Rus­sia ques­tion would have been asked. And if I know it, then Trump and his com­mu­ni­ca­tions team know it.

That’s a very dan­ger­ous prece­dent be­cause the par­ti­san press is not the same thing as the free and in­de­pen­dent press. (That’s true of out­lets on the right and the left.) The par­ti­san press is play­ing to an au­di­ence who shares a cer­tain view­point. The in­de­pen­dent me­dia is try­ing to hold power to ac­count. That’s not the same mis­sion, even though those things do, some­times, run in the same di­rec­tion.

Hate Trump or love him, the idea that he is pur­posely freez­ing out main­stream me­dia re­porters be­cause he doesn’t like the sort of ques­tions they ask is chill­ing. Down that path lies noth­ing good for jour­nal­ism – or democ­racy.

The par­ti­san press is play­ing to an au­di­ence who shares a cer­tain view­point. The in­de­pen­dent me­dia is try­ing to hold power to ac­count.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe speaks as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump looks on dur­ing a me­dia con­fer­ence at the White House last week.

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