Trump Versus the Press

Even in an era when politicians are increasingly able to be stingy about granting media access, the presumptive Republican nominee’s tactics stick out.

Harrison McClary / Reuters

The final straw for Donald Trump came Monday morning, when The Washington Post ran a story quoting his comments about the Orlando shooting, in which he implied that President Obama might be complicit or at the very least negligent in handling terrorism. The Post’s original headline, later changed, was “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting.”

Trump, livid, announced he would no longer provide credentials to the Post to attend his events. The backlash was fierce, and deserved. It’s worth stepping back and considering the ways in which Trump’s move represents a break with the past, and the ways it fits in a continuum of increasing limitations on the press in recent years, including over the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

It’s notable that Trump didn’t take issue with any of the substance of the Post’s story; his comments were quoted faithfully and accurately. But Trump has a long list of grievances with the paper, and was particularly infuriated when the reporter David Farenthold pointed out that Trump had not given anywhere near the $5 million to veterans’ groups that he’d promised. The newspaper’s editor, Marty Baron, panned Trump in a statement: “Donald Trump’s decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press. When coverage doesn’t correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished.”

The White House Correspondents Association also criticized Trump. “Any nominee for the highest office in the country must respect the role of a free and adversarial press,” President Carol Lee said in a statement, “not disown the principles of the First Amendment just because he or she does not like the tone or content of their coverage.”

As James Fallows wrote, barring the press from events is an unusual step. Presidents and politicians have been furious at newspapers before, and they’ve found ways to take that anger out: canceling subscriptions, refusing to grant interviews, and the like. Richard Nixon mused on ways to hurt the Post financially over Watergate, and Attorney General John Mitchell threatened the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham with physical harm. But they didn’t try to throw outlets out of the White House briefing room simply for critical coverage. Is there any doubt that Trump, having done the equivalent during the campaign, would try to do the same as president?

The Post is not the first outlet that Trump has banned. Previously, he’s cast out reporters from The Des Moines Register, BuzzFeedThe Daily BeastPolitico, and others. Barring from them attending campaign events does not prevent them from covering the Trump campaign. Many of the best Trump stories are investigative pieces, or big-picture policy dives, or opinion columns. Besides, nearly every public moment of the Trump campaign is broadcast live, so a reporter can at least see a speech, even if she can’t get the color and flavor of a rally.

Trump claims to despise the press, a claim that is easier to believe than it once was, but still basically risible. He loves to criticize the press, because he knows his supporters don’t like the media. But he knows just as well how powerful the press can be—that’s why he’s banning the Post after all—and has expertly used it throughout his career, in order to build up his own legend. As a businessman, he was far more easily accessible than the CEOs of comparably sized companies, and as a politician, he gives more interviews than his rivals.

The outlook for a probing, independent press in a Trump White House would not be good. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be great under a Hillary Clinton administration, either. This isn’t to equate the two campaigns; she hasn’t done anything as heavy-handed, but she has also made herself conspicuously unavailable to the press.

And so has Barack Obama. He entered office promising the most transparent administration ever, and instead has presided over a tight-lipped ship that aggressively fights leaks. Rather than sidestep the independent press by keeping them at arm’s length, he has diluted them by expanding access for interlocutors other than the White House press corps, a group that includes everything from local TV to YouTube stars to Zach Galifianakis. That doesn’t mean he has cut off access entirely to other reporters who ask difficult questions—see, for example, my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg’s in-depth encounters with the president. Reporters have criticized that, including some pointed remarks by then-WHCA President Christi Parsons, with the president sitting just to her side, at the 2015 Correspondents Dinner. Sometimes the complaints can seem whiny and entitled, especially because the White House reporters don’t necessarily ask any stronger questions. But it’s probably not a coincidence that major papers like the Post and Wall Street Journal also see less access.

In a superb meditation on the changing journalism landscape last year, John Hermann wrote (among other things) about how much political and entertainment journalism are built on the expectation of access, and how, as the media has fractured and been overtaken by new distribution methods, that access is drying up. In turn, he wrote, citing Dave Roberts, there’s less of a space for objective reporting. It’s certainly true that in the case of Trump, the objective media has taken on new, sharper tones, increasingly alarmed by each violation of accepted practice.

In the case of a Trump campaign, being denied formal access won’t make or break an outlet. For one thing, the events themselves are only a small part of the landscape; for another, Trump has a very long track record that be explored—in part, again, because he has been so eager to grant access in the past. As president, however, that would become less the case. Suddenly the history would matter less, while the reality of the present would become more important. President Trump could tightly restrict the flow of information. And having successfully cut off one outlet, what would prevent him from squeezing out all but the friendliest remaining reporters, leaving only Breitbart News hanging out in the briefing room? Probably only traditional propriety, which doesn’t seem to govern things very far. That would be bad news (no pun intended) not just for a few outlets, but for the nation.