Let's face it: freedom of the press is not something most people think about. In fact, in our polarized political universe, many people believe the folks on "the other side" don't really deserve to have it. Whether it's Sean Hannity on the right or Rachel Maddow on the left, social media is filled with mocking comments from people who dislike them and/or disagree with their views.
And that's okay. They both understand that what they say will get some people upset. Since they are commentators, their job is to express their opinion; and as long as they continue to get lots of viewers, chances are their respective channels will keep them on the air, whether some folks like them or not.
But reporters are in a different situation. Their job is to inform the public and seek out the facts. Not every reporter sees a story in the same way: Bret Baier of Fox News and Andrea Mitchell of NBC/MSNBC might approach that story from different perspectives. But neither will put partisan opinion into the reporting, and neither will intentionally distort what happened.
And then, there's the White House press briefings. Reporters have grumbled about them for years, saying not much news takes place during a typical briefing; but they all feel they ought to be there, just in case. Every president has a press secretary, and his or her job seems to be giving as many vague non-answers as possible, while avoiding any awkward or embarrassing replies that would make the president look bad. Radio, TV, and print outlets select the reporters who will cover these press briefings: and if you're a TV reporter, your mission is to be seen on camera asking a question, even if the answer you're given isn't terribly exciting.
What does get exciting is when the president himself takes questions. It doesn't always happen-- in fact, you can find out at this website https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/presidential-news-conferences how many times modern presidents have held a press conference. Last week, when President Trump spoke to the press, there was a heated interchange between him and his favorite foil, CNN's Jim Acosta. It concluded with Mr. Trump berating the reporter, calling him names, and then ordering his press pass to be taken away.
Many conservatives on social media applauded. They've been told repeatedly that CNN is "fake news" and that Mr. Acosta is the worst, most biased reporter. But whether folks like him or hate him, taking away his press pass sets a dangerous precedent. It's only in autocracies and third-world dictatorships that powerful leaders punish the reporters they dislike, or select which reporters have the right to cover the news. In America, it's the networks and the newspapers that decide who's in the press conferences-- not the president.
And that's the way it should be. For those who hate Jim Acosta, you have a right to your opinion. But beware the slippery slope: if it's okay for a Republican to ban a reporter, what happens when a Democrat takes over the White House? Will it be open season on reporters that president dislikes? Frankly, I like the system we currently have-- the one where all the TV and radio networks and all the print publications select who will represent them in the room, and the president stays out of it.
As I write this, CNN has just won the first round of a law suit to get Mr. Acosta's press pass back. (The judge was appointed by President Trump, by the way; but his ruling to return it, temporarily, was because Mr. Acosta was never given due process.) And whether the case is ultimately won or lost in court, I'm hoping sanity will prevail and the president will stop being vengeful towards the media who cover him. It's not their job to be nice to him; it's their job to ask him tough questions. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, presidents have expressed dislike for the press; but they've also acknowledged how important a free press is to our democracy. Mr. Trump seems to have forgotten that. Someone really needs to remind him.
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