In punishing CNN for its supposed “fake news,” President Donald Trump endangers far more than one news outlet’s ratings and reputation. A president who rewards networks and newspapers that praise him, while threatening to isolate others, undercuts the public’s trust in all political coverage. And good political coverage is crucial to keeping politicians good.
Over the last month, leading Trump administration officials have appeared on major news shows on all networks but CNN. This boycott of sorts was made explicit at a January 11 news conference, when the president-elect spurned a question from a CNN reporter, saying “your organization is terrible.”
It’s up to The New York Times and Fox News and the rest to protect the independence and integrity of their profession in this unprecedentedly hostile environment. Until the White House stops playing favorites, all coverage of the administration – news articles, interviews, features – should contain a written or on-air clarification of the present situation. One suggestion:
Disclaimer: The Trump administration sometimes restricts access for news outlets with coverage it considers unfriendly. Nonetheless, the Daily Planet provides the same vigorous, fair coverage of this president as of his predecessors.
Such “warning labels” serve many purposes. They constantly remind journalists not to be cowed by mercurial government officials. They pressure the Trump administration to change its exclusionary policy. And they show solidarity with the ostracized journalists at CNN.
The network’s exile is actually an extension of the media favoritism shown by the Trump campaign. Over the summer, major news outlets including The Washington Post lost and regained media credentials based on their coverage of the candidate. Reporters from outlets like the Post and Politico were even barred from covering campaign events as private citizens.
At the time Trump explicitly rejected continuing such hostile tactics if elected: “That’s different from me taking something away — there I’m taking something away where I’m representing the nation,” he told The New York Times.
But the Trump administration isn’t acting like the president represents the nation. It’s still in campaign mode. In explaining the exclusionary policy toward CNN, a White House official told Politico, “We’re sending surrogates to places where we think it makes sense to promote our agenda.” This favoritism far exceeds the Obama administration’s petty gripes about Fox News and sparse appearances on it. Trump is trying to change the nature of national journalism itself.
My friend Julie Makinen, a JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, suggests the White House press corps stand with CNN when the president or press secretary refuses to take the network’s questions. Every journalist called on should start with, “I’d like to ask CNN’s question.” Such an “I am Spartacus” strategy could slow the White House’s cultivation of a chilling atmosphere for journalists.
And Julie knows something about chilling atmospheres for journalists.
Like today’s CNN reporters, she was once punished for her coverage – by the most autocratic country in the world. Last May, on a trip to Pyongyang, North Korea denied her access to the high-profile Seventh Workers’ Party Congress because her “reports were not respectful.” As Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, she never asked questions during Chinese government press conferences, because they had to be submitted in advance and she refused to participate in a charade of press freedom.
Back home, Julie has no patience for Trump’s strategy of punishing individual outlets while savaging the entire profession, an approach she calls “a serious threat to the institution of the free press and therefore democracy itself.” But journalists are not helpless: “Reporters and media outlets need to band together and resist and call out this behavior at every turn.”
Solidarity is necessary because the danger is acute. Reporters covering the Kremlin during the Soviet era and (sorry) Nazi Germany danced a delicate ballet trying to provide accurate and fair reports to their readers without jeopardizing future coverage. The idea Washington’s press corps could face even a quarter as much repression should alarm every citizen who wants America to stay America.
Reporters can help by including disclaimers in their coverage and aggressively defending ostracized outlets. Consumers of media can reward CNN and similar press exiles by overcompensating in their favor when deciding where to get their news. And every Republican in the country (that’s you) can tell the Trump administration that playing favorites to foster friendly coverage is unacceptable and we won’t stand for it.
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.