There’s a darkness spreading over Washington these days, and it might be time for everyone in the news media who cares about democracy to confront it – even if it causes some pain.
Donald Trump’s White House and the Republican-controlled Congress are taking our government behind closed doors in a way not even dared by Richard Nixon. And Team Trump is laughing in the face of the press as it does so.
You might enjoy seeing the Washington press corps treated with contempt. After all, its members are another kind of elite. (There’s no denying that.)
But in demeaning the press by denying access and straight answers to simple questions, Team Trump also mocks all of us and our form of government that constitutionally demands accountability from those in power. The real-world consequences of our leaders governing behind closed doors can be seen in the secret health care plan crafted by senior Republicans in the Senate without even letting some of their own party members in on the process. The bill will affect one-sixth of the national economy and tens of millions of Americans, according to the Congressional Office of Budget.
Trump battled with the media throughout his campaign, urging huge crowds at his rallies to heckle members of the press, who were regularly penned behind barriers. He called reporters “scum.”
Almost from the moment of his election, members of his transition team threatened changes to the way the White House has dealt with the press for almost 100 years. In February, he called CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and The New York Times “the enemy of the American people.”
But that rhetorical antipathy took a more ominous turn in recent weeks within the White House and the Capitol.
Prior to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 13 about meetings with Russian officials, correspondents were barred from interviewing senators in the halls.
“Today brought news that some people in this building are trying to bar reporters from asking senators questions,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said later that day on the floor of the Senate. “This is outrageous. If senators can’t handle tough questions from reporters about their plans to take health care away from millions of Americans, they should change the bill, not restrict reporters.”
Brown linked what happened to reporters in the Capitol that day to the barring of U.S. media photographers from a photo-op in the Oval Office in May featuring Trump and Russian officials.
“Remember that Oval Office meeting with Russian officials? We have all seen the pictures, but the photos that ran on front pages around the country weren’t taken by American journalists. They were taken by Russian state media, the remnants of the old Soviet propaganda machine,” he explained.
The move to bar reporters from interviewing members of Congress was reversed after Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, started asking questions of her Republican colleagues as to how it came about.
On Monday, relations in the press room at the White House took a turn for the worse when embattled press secretary Sean Spicer refused to allow cameras or audio recording of his session with reporters.
Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent for CNN, tweeted Monday that the “suppression of information going on” at the White House would not be tolerated in local and state government.
“I don’t know why everyone is going along with this,” Acosta said on-air Monday after the session. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And it just feels like we are slowly but surely being dragged into a new normal in this country where the president of the United States is allowed to insulate himself from answering hard questions.”
Indicative of the way the Trump administration has often responded to legitimate press inquiries was its interaction with a staff writer from The Atlantic who tried to get answers about the move to off-camera briefings.
“Neither Spicer nor deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders responded to queries about the changes to the briefings,” Rosie Gray wrote. “Asked why the briefings are now routinely held off-camera, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said in a text message, ‘Sean got fatter,’ and did not respond to a follow-up.”
A White House briefing with cameras and audio was held Tuesday in the wake of blowback to Monday’s ban. But typical of the administration’s resistance to substantive answers, Spicer told reporters during the session that he did not know if President Trump believed the Russians interfered in the 2016 elections because he had not discussed it with his boss.
As the briefings have grown shorter with fewer of them on-camera, Spicer has regularly sidestepped reporters’ questions by saying he could not answer because he had not discussed the matter with the president.
Spicer did promise to “get back” to the reporter with an answer about the 2016 election. But Jonathan Karl, ABC’s chief White House correspondent, said don’t hold your breath.
“If the past is any guide, it’s going to be a long wait,” he wrote at abcnews.go.com. “At White House press briefings since May 1, Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have promised to come back with answers to more than 25 questions, but there is no public record of a single follow-up answer to any of those questions.”
And even when answers are given, they are often dismissive or sarcastic. Sanders told reporters on June 8 that she would “look under the couches” in the Oval Office when asked if she would try to get an answer to the question of whether there were tapes of the president’s conversations with fired FBI Director James Comey. Trump himself had introduced the possibility of recordings in a tweet on May 12.
(On Thursday, after more than five weeks of cat and mouse, Trump tweeted that there are no tapes. And the briefing was audio only – no cameras.)
The press might not deserve better, but the American people certainly do.
Multiple reports say Spicer is getting kicked upstairs in the White House communications operation and is searching for someone to replace him at the podium.
While anything might seem like an improvement, the issues here are far more about policy than personality. The Trump administration looks hell-bent on staying as far behind closed doors as it can get, and it is unlikely that putting a new face at the podium will change that.
So what can the press do to stem the growing secrecy and erosion of access?
Some news executives and correspondents were reluctant to answer on the record.
Reuters’ Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, did not reply to requests for comment. Some cable and network news managers on whom I have reported for decades would only talk on background.
Chistopher Isham, vice president and Washington bureau chief for CBS News, did go on the record as to the current state of affairs in covering the White House. Isham said there is an ongoing dialogue with the Trump administration about issues of access. He said he definitely wants more on-camera briefings and more availability of the president. While there are serious issues, he does not feel they are at war.
Dialogue is always the first choice, I agree. But the president sounds as bellicose as ever to me.
"We will never be intimidated by the dishonest media corporations who will say anything and do anything to get people to watch their screens or to get people to buy their failing papers,” he told a cheering crowd at a campaign-style rally in Iowa on Wednesday night.
Trump has used the politics of resentment to convince his followers that the press is their enemy, not their surrogate as described in the Constitution. Kicking around the press is good politics, as his team sees it.
It is good business, too, in a bad way. As a businessman, Trump knows information is the commodity on which the media business is based. In denying access to it, he punishes the “enemy” in its pocketbook.
In 2009, the Obama administration banned Fox News from interviews with a top Treasury Department official as part of a larger White House effort to delegitimize the conservative news channel. Other channels and networks, like CNN and CBS, collectively protested and said if Fox was banned, they would not interview the official, either.
Team Obama quickly backed down in its overt war on Fox, learning early in its run that there were limits to how much it could alter the historical relationship between the presidency and the press.
The bigger channels – CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and possibly Fox – would again have to be involved to have any impact in this struggle with Trump.
You can only talk to a bully so long before you have to act. Maybe it’s time for such collective action again in taking an administration to school.