Reprinted with permission from PressRun
If journalists won’t stand up for themselves, how are we supposed to stand up for them in the age of Trump?
That question comes up regularly when he lashes out against the press and takes authoritarian steps, like blocking access for specific news outlets, only to have other news organizations sit on their hands and do nothing as they watch the bullying unfold.
That’s what happened on Tuesday, when Trump blocked CNN anchors from attending the traditional, off-the-record White House lunch on the day of the State of the Union. No reason was given for the public slight, an unthinkable act of media aggression had it been done by any previous administration. But instead of taking collective action and standing alongside CNN and boycotting the lunch, network TV anchors gladly filed into the White House in search of access.
Keep in mind this week in London, when the newly elected conservative government under Boris Johnson banned certain reporters from a briefing at No. 10 Downing Street, journalists marched out in protest. Yet it’s been three years since Trump’s team has been randomly punishing reporters by banning them, and nobody in the Beltway has walked out of anything. Instead, we’ve seen occasional letters of protest meekly typed up and delivered to the White House door.
Trump’s lashing out at CNN comes just days after the State Department banned National Public Radio from accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a trip after an NPR reporter had the temerity to ask Pompeo some straight-forward, obvious question about the impeachment scandal during a recent interview. After the Q&A, a furious Pompeo yelled and cursed at the reporter. Then the NPR ban was put in place.
On Monday night, a Bloomberg News reporter was asked to leave a Trump campaign event in Iowa. That same night, reporters from BuzzFeed were also kicked out of a Trump event. No reason was given. It all constitutes a historic, incremental effort by the Trump administration to lock out the news media—and, by extension, the public—from the government’s official duties and business.
Yet news outlets do nothing in response.
In some cases these are extraordinary large and powerful companies — CNN banks one billion dollars in profits each year — with lots of leverage at their disposal. But they just keep taking punch after punch, pretending they have no options.
This remains one of the media’s defining failures under Trump, and it’s easily one of the most distressing. Categorically refusing to stand up to a political bully, news outlets have instead opted to try to play a doomed game of let’s-get-along with Trump, who proudly labels journalists the “enemy of the people.” Rather than taking collective action and flexing their muscle by sending a clear message that the bullying and intimidation won’t work, major news organizations have backed down over and over, to the point where Trump clearly understands there will be no resistance, and he’ll pay no penalty for pushing journalists around.
The pre-SOTU lunch represented a perfect example of how news organizations could have joined forces and said, ‘If CNN’s not invited we’re not showing up.’ And Trump, who lives off media attention, would have been left with a deserted media round-table lunch. Instead, the networks all sent their anchors to the White House so they could act as extras for Trump’s latest performance.
For years, the SOTU lunch has been something of a White House charade that passes as tradition. There’s no intrinsic news value in sitting for an off-the-record lunch with the president while he previews his State of the Union. That’s been true for decades. There’s absolutely no reason so sit like potted plants through an off-the-record lunch with Trump who’s known to be a committed liar. Instead, the Tuesday event was about protocol, and TV networks pretending that not much has really changed in American politics since Trump took office three years ago.
It was also about access, of course. The proximity to power, which is how many among the Beltway media elite judge their success and preeminence. Once they obtain that access to the highest levels of the White House, there’s nothing that will make them give it up.
Last winter, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger accompanied reporters to a White House interview with Trump in order to press his case that the president’s anti-journalism rhetoric was dangerous. But the opportunity was a wasted one when Sulzberger toothlessly objected to claims of “fake news,” and Trump pretended not to know his words were having consequences.
If today’s editors and producers in positions of power don’t want to stand up to Trump’s bullying, can they hand over the reins of powers to somebody who will?
P.S. Hours after CNN was blocked from attending Trump’s State of the Union lunch, CNN announced that his State of the Union speech was “dazzling.”