Criticism of the media by a president is not necessarily a bad thing
Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.
But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?
.. Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried... By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic... Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors... Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become... This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely —
- one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator;
- the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people,
not that I’m surprised by that.”
.. Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.
So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.
.. In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.
.. Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.
.. For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump.
.. As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)
.. As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.
.. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperil
.. The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .
.. Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.
.. The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.
.. I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.
Question: What does CNN’s Jim Acosta crave more than anything? If you said “attention,” go to the head of the class. It’s a mystery why the White House has given Acosta way more than that. By yanking his “hard pass” after last week’s press conference (don’t ask who was obnoxious; they all were), Acosta has literally become a federal case. CNN filed suit claiming that its reporter’s First and Fifth Amendment rights were violated. More than a dozen news organizations, including Fox, have filed amicus briefs supporting CNN, and even Trump-friendly Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano has opined that Acosta has a strong case. Mr. Showboat is just where he wants to be — the center of attention — but thanks to President Trump’s gratuitous swipe, he is also a free-press martyr.
Kelly, whom Trump appointed to the federal bench last year, handed down his ruling two days after the network and government lawyers argued over whether the president had the power to exclude a reporter from the White House.
In his decision, Kelly ruled that Acosta’s First Amendment rights overruled the White House’s right to have orderly news conferences. Kelly said he agreed with the government’s argument that there was no First Amendment right to come onto the White House grounds. But, he said, once the White House opened up the grounds to reporters, the First Amendment applied.
.. He also agreed with CNN’s argument that the White House did not provide due process. He said the White House’s decision-making was “so shrouded in mystery that the government could not tell me . . . who made the decision.” The White House’s later written arguments for banning Acosta were belated and weren’t sufficient to satisfy due process, Kelly said.
.. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced Acosta’s “indefinite” suspension last week after the confrontation at the news conference. Trump and Sanders have had several run-ins with Acosta stretching back to before Trump became president.
.. CNN has argued that the ban on Acosta violated his First Amendment rights because it amounts to “viewpoint discrimination” — that is, the president is punishing him for statements and coverage he didn’t like. The network has also said the action violates Acosta’s Fifth Amendment right to due process because his exclusion follows no written guidelines or rules and has no appeal or review procedures.
.. Until the White House’s action last week, no reporter credentialed to cover the president had ever had a press pass revoked.
.. A government lawyer, James Burnham, argued in a hearing before Kelly on Wednesday that the president was within his rights to ban any reporter from the White House at any time, just as he excludes reporters from interviews in the Oval Office. He said Acosta could report on the president “just as effectively” by watching the president on TV or by calling sources within the White House. He also said CNN wouldn’t be injured by Acosta’s exclusion since CNN has dozens of other journalists credentialed for the White House.
.. Burnham also explained that Trump’s rationale for Acosta’s ban was his “rudeness” at last week’s news conference, in effect arguing that Acosta’s conduct, not his right to free speech, was the relevant issue.
The assertions drew a rebuttal from CNN’s lawyer, Boutrous, who described the ban on the reporter as arbitrary, capricious and unprecedented. He said White House reporters need access to the premises to meet with sources and to report on untelevised “gaggles,” impromptu discussions with press aides and other officials, so that banning a reporter from the grounds harms his or her ability to do their job.
.. Trump has suggested other reporters could face a similar fate if they displease him in some unspecified way.
.. During the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, Trump banned more than a dozen news organizations from his rallies and public events, including The Washington Post. But he said he wouldn’t do something similar as president. Last week, he went back on that statement.
.. Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign has used the CNN lawsuit to drum up contributions, portraying the suit as evidence of “liberal bias” — an assertion Boutrous brought up on Wednesday to demonstrate that Trump had political reasons for banning Acosta.
A 1977 court ruling said that administrations cannot bar correspondents from the briefing room without “due process.”
.. In January 1972, when Sherrill reapplied for White House press credentials, he was again denied without explanation. That’s when the American Civil Liberties Union took his case to federal court. With the ACLU’s help, Sherrill sued the Secret Service for violating his First and Fifth Amendment rights.
By the time a D.C. circuit-court judge ruled in his case in 1977, it had been 11 years after his credentials were originally denied... hen donald trump clashed with Jim Acosta, the chief White House correspondent for CNN, at his post-midterms news conference on Wednesday—and later revoked his press credentials—he most likely knew nothing about the precedent set by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in Robert Sherrill’s case—precedent, experts said, that put the law squarely on Acosta’s side.
“Thank you Mr. President. I wanted to challenge you on one of the statements that you made on the tail end of the campaign in the midterms,” Acosta started, microphone in hand, staring ahead toward the president from the front row of the press conference.
Trump’s lips pursed and then released. “Here we go,” he said, practically breaking the fourth wall.
“If you don’t mind, Mr. President—” Acosta tried.
“C’mon, c’mon, let’s go.” The president let out a half whistle from his mouth and motioned to his rival to hurry up and ask his question.
“—that this caravan was an invasion.”
“I consider it to be an invasion,” Trump replied.
The exchange became testier and Trump’s complexion reddened. “Honestly, I think you should let me run the country. You run CNN. And if you did it well, your ratings would be better,” Trump told the reporter.
Acosta held on to the microphone as a White House intern tried to grab it back from him. “Mr. President, I had one other question, if I may ask, on the Russia investigation,” Acosta said. “Are you concerned that—”
Trump lifted a finger and wagged it from the podium. “I’m not concerned about anything about the Russia investigation, ’cause it’s a hoax.” He walked away from the podium momentarily, readying for his next hit. Acosta gave in and relinquished the mic.
“I’ll tell you what,” the president huffed. “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN … You’re a very rude person. The way you treat Sarah Huckabee [Sanders] is horrible and the way you treat other people are horrible. You shouldn’t treat people that way.”
When Acosta returned to the White House grounds later that evening to do a live shot for Anderson Cooper 360°, the Secret Service asked for his hard pass, which he had held since 2013, and confiscated it. They were just following orders, and he understood that; the orders came from higher up. His access was revoked: He was locked out of the Trump White House.
.. To explain why Acosta’s credentials had been revoked, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, tweeted a highly edited video on Wednesday that appeared to show Acosta hitting the intern who tried to grab his microphone. Sanders wrote on Twitter, “President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his administration. We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern…” Acosta tweeted back, “This is a lie.”
In actuality, the video Sanders shared was doctored and originally posted by Paul Joseph Watson, a British conspiracy theorist associated with the fake-news website Infowars.
.. The White House Correspondents’ Association denounced “the Trump Administration’s decision to use US Secret Service security credentials as a tool to punish a reporter with whom it has a difficult relationship.”
.. The conservative blogger Erick Erickson tweeted, “Y’all, I’m sorry to defy the tribe, but I’ve watched this video over and over and it looks more like @Acosta had his arm out pointing with his finger and when she tried to pull the microphone down, both his arms went down rather naturally.”.. Among those in media and politics, the widespread consensus was an obvious one: This was not about safety and security; this was not about an assault. Acosta was punished for the way he went about his reporting... “If there are professional concerns that the White House has about Jim Acosta or anyone else, they should express that professionally. They should be talking about that openly and there should be an effort to determine what, if anything, needs to change. The response is not engaging the Secret Service to pull someone’s credentials.”
“That’s just completely inappropriate and just this side of thuggery in my view,” Sesno added... In public remarks on Friday morning, Trump seemed unremorseful about pulling Acosta’s credentials. The president threatened further punishment for reporters like American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan, calling her a “loser.”
“It could be others also” if they “don’t treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect,” Trump said.
.. “Once the government creates the kind of forum that it has created, like the White House briefing room, it can’t selectively include or exclude people on the basis of ideology or viewpoint,” said Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.
.. The new steps enunciated in the Sherrill decision to ensure that reporters’ First Amendment rights are not violated include
- the requirement to give the reporter notice and
- the right to rebut a formal written decision, which must accompany any revocation.
“We further conclude that notice, opportunity to rebut, and a written decision are required because the denial of a pass potentially infringes upon First Amendment guarantees,” the court’s ruling states. “Such impairment of this interest cannot be permitted to occur in the absence of adequate procedural due process.”.. “If the Secret Service makes this kind of determination that they’re going to no longer let someone have access, or limit access from the start, there should be a really good reason for that,” Michele Kimball, a media-law professor at George Washington University, said. “And if you are denied that access, there should be some sort of procedural due process for you, [so] that you can find out what happened... “What they’ve done here is not only unwise, but probably illegal,” the ACLU’s Wizner concluded... He clearly relished that role as an outsider, because when he won his 11-year battle with the White House to get credentialed, he opted against it... “The fun thing about this was that when I was finally going to get a press pass, I never applied,” Sherrill told the Times. “I didn’t want to be in the White House. I had been in Washington long enough to realize that was the last place to waste your time sitting around for some dumb [expletive] to give a press conference.”When all was said and done, Sherrill knew his best work would be done far away from the place he was never allowed to visit.