Trump must learn about press free­dom


The White House was forced to eat hum­ble pie af­ter District Court Judge Ti­mothy Kelly or­dered it to re­in­state CNN re­porter Jim Acosta’s press cre­den­tials, but the pres­i­den­tial counter-at­tack was no sur­prise.

Fol­low­ing the Acosta con­tro­versy, the White House con­firmed a new rule for the press gallery: no fol­lowup ques­tions. Re­porters have now been told they must wait obe­di­ently for their ra­tion and not be so bold as to ask for more. In fact, each re­porter is re­quired to “phys­i­cally sur­ren­der” the mi­cro­phone af­ter his or her per­mit­ted ques­tion and al­low some­one else a turn. The only ex­cep­tions are when who­ever is run­ning the con­fer­ence - a White House Of­fi­cial or the Pres­i­dent him­self - specif­i­cally al­lows it.

Press free­dom, like free­dom of speech it­self, was never meant to be com­fort­able. Re­porters who dig in their toes and refuse to be si­lenced with a glib re­ply are do­ing their job the way it is sup­posed to be done - and the way their pub­lic ul­ti­mately de­mands.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, out­raged by the new pro­ce­dure, com­mented that, “The White House be­longs to the peo­ple, not the Pres­i­dent, and the job of re­porters is to ask hard ques­tions, not to be po­lite.” Very true, and it is not just the pres­i­dent’s ac­com­mo­da­tion which be­longs to the peo­ple, but the pres­i­den­tial of­fice it­self.

Don­ald Trump is used to calling the shots, and he grap­ples with the irony that be­ing the­o­ret­i­cally the most pow­er­ful man in the world ac­tu­ally gives him less con­trol than he had as a busi­ness­man.

The White House may try to ra­tio­nal­ize this change by claim­ing it has been done sim­ply to pro­mote civil be­hav­iour (it has even called it a “deco­rum” rule) but this should fool no one. Ad­mit­tedly, dis­cus­sion can be messy, and it can be dif­fi­cult get­ting the bal­ance be­tween civ­i­lized ques­tion­ing and dis­or­der. Some ob­servers of the Acosta-Trump al­ter­ca­tion may have found the CNN re­porter too pushy. How­ever, Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­sponse was also im­po­lite.

This new mea­sure ap­pears to be a way of pre­vent­ing in­quis­i­tive re­porters from delv­ing into con­tro­ver­sial is­sues which may put the White House on the back foot, ex­pos­ing flawed pol­icy, ig­no­rance or even du­plic­ity. In other words, in­sist­ing on the open­ness and ac­count­abil­ity the sys­tem re­quires.

Last Tues­day, the White House held its first con­fer­ence since the at­tempt to sti­fle Acosta. The at­mos­phere was re­laxed, al­most as if both sides re­gret­ted the ear­lier skir­mish. Re­porters po­litely asked for fol­low-ups and press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders granted them. Acosta him­self asked a ques­tion and dif­fi­dently added, “If I could ask a fol­lowup...” which was al­lowed.

This com­pli­ant at­mos­phere of­fers some hope that open­ness may re­turn, but only a faint glim­mer. Re­porters must not be cowed by re­stric­tions that make them feel like guilty school pupils al­lowed back into the class­room only if they can be­have.

The White House has no con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to host any re­porter, or even to hold press con­fer­ences at all. They oc­cur be­cause they have be­come es­tab­lished as a tra­di­tion, and dif­fi­cult ques­tions have be­come a part of that.

Free­dom of in­for­ma­tion prin­ci­ples are at stake here which lie at the heart of democ­racy. As Jef­fer­son once wrote, “Our lib­erty de­pends on the free­dom of the press, and that free­dom can­not be lim­ited with­out be­ing lost.”

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