Chilling effect of Trump’s mainstream media freeze
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):
❚ Bloomberg. Bush/Mexican President Vincente Fox (Feb 16, 2001):
❚ NBC News.
❚ FOX News. Bush/British PM Tony Blair (Feb 23, 2001):
❚ 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.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks as US President Donald Trump looks on during a media conference at the White House last week.