CNN should sue Trump over loss of press pass

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY MAR­GARET SUL­LI­VAN The Wash­ing­ton Post

White House cor­re­spon­dent Jim Acosta is a smart, tough re­porter. He can also be a grand­stander who seems to thrive on con­flict with Pres­i­dent Donald Trump, and doesn’t al­ways know when to stop his ques­tion­ing.

But whether you like Acosta’s style, it’s clear the White House crossed a bright line Wed­nes­day when it took away Acosta’s “hard pass,” which al­lows him the ac­cess he needs to cover the White House.

That ac­tion amounts to pun­ish­ing a mem­ber of the press for do­ing his job and ask­ing ques­tions, and then creat­ing a false pre­text about its re­tal­i­a­tion.

Trump’s dis­like of Acosta is well known, and he took it to a new level at an un­hinged news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, call­ing him “a rude, ter­ri­ble per­son,” whom CNN should be ashamed of em­ploy­ing.

To make mat­ters worse, Sarah San­ders lied – and cir­cu­lated a mis­lead­ingly edited video to back her­self up – when she claimed later that Acosta was be­ing pun­ished for “plac­ing his hands on a young woman.”

A White House staff mem­ber was di­rected to take a mic out of Acosta’s hands; he cer­tainly didn’t read­ily give it up, but he was po­lite, and he came into phys­i­cal con­tact with her only for a brief mo­ment as he moved his arm to shield the mic.

I’ve heard var­i­ous sug­ges­tions about how CNN or the press corps should re­spond to this re­tal­i­a­tion: There should be a boy­cott, a walk­out, a news black­out. And I’ve read the strongly worded re­bukes from the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion, from CNN and oth­ers.

But mere words aren’t enough. And a boy­cott or black­out not only runs counter to the core idea that the re­porters are there to in­form the pub­lic, but it also would cede the brief­ings to the worst Trump syco­phants.

No, some­thing more is called for: CNN should sue the Trump White House on First Amend­ment grounds, and press­rights groups, along with other me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, should join in to cre­ate a united and pow­er­ful front. (Fox News, which ben­e­fited from the press corps’ united front on its be­half in 2009, should pay that sol­i­dar­ity for­ward by get­ting on board.)

“This mer­its a force­ful re­sponse, and a law­suit would be rea­son­able,” said Jonathan Peters, a his­to­rian who teaches at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia Law School and is the press free­dom cor­re­spon­dent for Columbia Jour­nal­ism Re­view.

He told me by email that the stated ra­tio­nale for re­vok­ing the pass “was clearly a sham,” and the White House should be held ac­count­able.

“Noth­ing ed­u­cates the govern­ment so much as a dam­age award,” he said. (The claim, he said, would likely take the form of an ac­tion un­der a statute which au­tho­rizes suits against govern­ment ac­tors for, among other things, a de­pri­va­tion of First Amend­ment rights.)

The le­gal ques­tion, he said, may be whether a jour­nal­ist has a First Amend­ment right of ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion or places closed to the pub­lic but open gen­er­ally to press – and some lower courts have said yes. (In Sher­rill v. Knight, a DC Cir­cuit Court ruled in 1977 that a re­porter for the Na­tion shouldn’t have been de­nied a White House press pass.)

Bruce Brown, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press, told me Thurs­day that CNN “now has a le­git­i­mate claim that there’s been re­tal­i­a­tion – a line has been crossed here.”

His or­ga­ni­za­tion “ab­so­lutely” would sup­port such an ef­fort, he said.

Granted, a suit is far from a per­fect so­lu­tion. It wouldn’t solve Acosta’s im­me­di­ate prob­lem, and it might take months or even years to be re­solved.

It also feeds the kind of anti-me­dia con­tro­versy Trump loves to gen­er­ate, and which ben­e­fits him po­lit­i­cally with his base.

And be­cause a suit would gen­er­ate news coverage, it would dis­tract from im­por­tant is­sues like Trump’s putting a loy­al­ist in the of­fice of at­tor­ney gen­eral af­ter fir­ing Jeff Ses­sions.

None of that is good. But far, far worse is let­ting a bul­ly­ing White House get away with re­tal­i­at­ing against the press and then ly­ing about it.

Mar­garet Sul­li­van is the me­dia colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post.


Pres­i­dent Donald Trump speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at the White House on Wed­nes­day. Trump called CNN re­porter Jim Acosta “a rude, ter­ri­ble per­son.”

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