Here is the question that pushed the president over the edge: “Do you think that you demonized immigrants in this election?” When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Donald Trump this question in a press conference the day after the midterm elections, the president bristled. Acosta pressed on. Trump told him “That’s enough” eight times, then instructed him to put down the mic, and a White House intern tried to pull the microphone out of Acosta’s hands.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency so far, the insult and vitriol that started as a theatrical rivalry—kayfabe, as professional wrestling calls it—has quickly morphed into a much more sinister and dangerous conflict. “Fake news” escalated into “enemy of the people.” And a prolonged period of sparring with CNN generally and Acosta specifically culminated in the White House retaliating against him for asking the president questions Trump didn’t like in a press conference.
This was the first time Trump used his authority to try to revoke press credentials, though denying reporters access to the White House is not new; The Nation’s Robert Sherrill failed to get Secret Service clearance for a pass during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. (In this case, the courts restored Acosta’s pass on the grounds that his right to due process had been violated, after which the White House said it wouldn’t pursue the ban.)
But while an attempt to bar one reporter from the West Wing is shocking, it is not the main threat to press freedom that this presidency has created. The real damage that Trump has rendered to press access is in his general attitude of undermining journalists’ credibility, particularly those he sees as investigating his affairs, or those who are more generally considered to be adversarial. Trump’s lack of respect toward women reporters and reporters of color has widespread effects, too. Online harassment of reporters is flourishing, and women and nonwhite reporters are particularly vulnerable to it. The ability of public figures to marginalize and control press access is becoming normalized across the political spectrum, in every country. Trump’s habit of repeating outrageous lies has complicated things, too: Journalists must grapple with the mass distraction of chasing the slippery eel of truth through the chaotic corridors of power.
Trump has a devastating effect on press freedom because he exercises his boorishness toward journalists at a unique time in the advancement of communication technology, and in concert with a permissive attitude toward authoritarians and authoritarianism. His attacks on the press are frequent, and go far beyond his many tweets claiming “fake news” about accurate coverage he finds unflattering. Consider the president’s apparent lack of concern over the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his tacit absolution of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his open admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his tolerance of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s tactics—all signals demonstrating that Trump’s slights to legitimate reporters cannot be viewed as harmless sparring or isolated from real-world effects.
Trump’s social-media indulgences have even raised questions about whether the president can legitimately block people from his Twitter feed, or whether that violates their First Amendment rights. In a case brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, where I am the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the courts did indeed rule that Trump’s Twitter blocking was unconstitutional. (The government has filed an appeal.)
Trump will never ban, block, and exclude the press as a whole, because there are some media personalities he finds useful. He welcomes Fox News’s Sean Hannity at his political rallies while shrugging off the murder of a Washington Post columnist, for example. Access to the presidency is a constitutional necessity for the press, but it is no longer a pathway to an informed citizenry.