The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment expert, Gene Policinski, originally published this commentary on May 11, 2018, on the Newseum blog, and has given First Amendment Watch permission to reprint.
Donald Trump can fantasize all he wants about taking away White House press credentials from news outlets that he doesn’t like.
It’s unpleasant for the journalists in Trump’s crosshairs to hear such bluster, but journalists and free press advocates ought not to even imagine a moment when, in misplaced solidarity, they all walk out of the White House press room in protest over even one credential being pulled.
As strong a message as one hopes that would send to the nation, we must remember that Trump can’t really extinguish the constitutionally protected role of journalists as “watchdogs” — but journalists, in a moment of anger and hubris, could abandon it.
Just consider an empty press room and what press critics can say about commitment and the necessity of even having a White House press corps if the reporters that compose it can just walk away, even symbolically. In reality, nobody wins in that scenario, even Trump. But we know who certainly will lose: the public.
After months of Trump’s attacks on “fake news” and the media, the desire for journalists to “give it back” is understandable. “You can’t throw me out — I’m leaving” is a classic retort to such blather and nonsense. It’s not the first time he’s made the threat: The Trump campaign did temporarily pull a few press credentials from correspondents it deemed hostile — something that, as a private operation, it could legally do.
Trump early Wednesday suggested taking away news outlets’ press credentials over negative reporting: “… 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake),” he tweeted. “Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”
How silly. The adult equivalent of the childhood taunt, “I’m taking my toys and going home.”
Ironically, most of the reporting that Trump dislikes is done by journalists working outside the White House press room – who, in yet another twist he ignores, are among the most likely to bring the public news about what Trump or other top administration officials say each day.
A benefit to all of us from this latest Twitter tirade is that news consumers finally have Trump’s genuine, gold-plated personal definition of “fake” news — it’s anything critical of him, which is a long way from “false news,” as in inaccurate or deliberately untrue information, and miles distant from blatant propaganda.
One way to consider the credential threat is as a bluff, meant somehow to intimidate. And therein is the temptation for White House correspondents to call that bluff and walk out.
No. Wrong thing to do.
The best response is not a walk-out but rather a “report-in”: Hold the White House accountable even more than usual, in every possible way — packed press briefings, followed by phone calls and emails seeking comment on when the credentials will be returned, in addition to the news of the day. Each day. Every day.
Provide daily reports on presidential goings-on to the banned organization or reporter. Suddenly, the targeted news outlet, along with being able to report freely from just outside the fence, will have the largest White House correspondent contingent possible.
The public gets much-needed information, the “penalized” journalists don’t miss a step, and the purely political ploy has no meaning — literally.
Stay on the job, report the news and any president will soon come to see that having temporary control over credentials for the White House briefing room gets “trumped” every time by the 45 words of the First Amendment.Freedom Forum Institute