Among the expectations of the Trump regime is that it would disrupt politics as usual, whether because it didn’t know traditions, understand how they developed and why they existed, or as a deliberate means of changing the usual mechanisms of Washington to break free of a cycle of failure. But this?
No one expected the White House Press Secretary to send the New York Times, CNN and others packing.
It’s tempting to take Friday’s petty decision by the Trump White House to bar certain news organizations from a briefing — something no administration of either party has ever done — as a backhanded compliment to the reporters whose honest work provoked the president’s latest foot-stamping tantrum.
There’s certainly a whiff of self-righteousness in there, that they were barred because they were too honest about an administration that wanted a press corp that would only do its bidding, blindly accept its word and spew it out unchallenged.
But for this rationale to work, it required that those news media who weren’t kicked out fit the rationale. The TV networks? The AP*? The Washington Post? They’re not Breitbart. Yet they weren’t banned.
It is certainly that. And in itself it is no huge blow to the republic. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, chose to bar The New York Times, CNN, Politico, Buzzfeed News and The Los Angeles Times, but other trustworthy news organizations were nevertheless in the room, and they can be relied upon to accurately report what they learned.
That’s an odd, and motley crüe, Having watched the New York Times coverage far more closely than the others, the reporting has been . . . disappointing. On the one hand, it obsesses over the every move of the Trump administration, not because it’s necessarily newsworthy, but because it offers an opportunity to be critical. And its reporting and editorial content are nearly identical; it has been substantially biased. Sometimes, wildly disingenuous.
Often, it omits, twists or distorts information to achieve a clear purpose of challenging Trump’s every move as ranging from horrifyingly evil to the worst thing ever. Some would argue that Trump deserves no less, but that’s not the point. Give the facts, explain them in a fair and balanced way and let readers draw their own conclusions. But that’s not how advocacy journalism works, and it’s the duty of a journalist today to tell readers who to love and hate. It doesn’t make the New York Times wrong in its conclusions, necessarily, but it does make their coverage facially biased.
Yet, the idea of locking out the New York Times, the paper of record, is beyond the pale. But why is that? The White House Press Corps decided who was worthy of a seat in the press room. It’s a self-selected group. It’s not government. It has no actual authority. It’s there because it somehow arose organically, and is now in charge of deciding who’s worthy of being a part of the club.
The Constitution doesn’t define journalists. It granted them no special rights. The First Amendment includes “the press” as part of its list of rights that cannot be abridged, but what that means has never been entirely clear. Is the press a mechanical device, the means of dissemination of information and opinion, or an occupation, businesses, people who call themselves journalists?
While journalists don’t want you to think of it this way, they’re just people who say “journalist” when asked what they do at cocktail parties. Some have good jobs with businesses engaged in what we popularly understand to be the news media. Some wish they did. If they lose their jobs, they may still claim to be journalists forever, even if their primary employment duty is to ask if you would like fries with that burger.
There is no license to be a journalist. There is a code of ethics, but it’s not a real code. If it was, there would be the potential to lose their journalism license for violating it. Since they have no license, nor test for entry, nor educational requirements, the code of ethics is merely aspirational.
So what makes the New York Times more of a “legitimate” news media than, say, SJ? Well, sure, but aside from readers, money, acceptance and history. The point is that it’s a private, for-profit, enterprise engaged in the dissemination of information and opinion. That describes a lot of businesses who don’t get a seat in the White House press room. Does the Times own that seat? Is it an entitlement? By what right? Says who?
The law recognizes the existence of the Fourth Estate in such decisions as New York Times v. Sullivan, but it glosses over the question of what actually distinguishes the legitimate press as unnecessary to the decision. It’s merely assumed to exist, and whatever it is, the New York Times is it.
There is a lot we take for granted as simply being the way things are, the way things have always been. We don’t look too hard behind the curtain, both because there’s no real reason to question such things and, even if we did, we wouldn’t find a satisfying answer that made better sense than things organically happened that way.
There is no one who would seriously question whether the New York Times is one of the pre-eminent newspapers in the United States, even if it’s grown a bit too full of itself and thinks it no longer need worry about such pedestrian details as accuracy, completeness, deep thought and balance.
That the New York Times, plus some of the others who were allowed to join the WHPC club for reasons that aren’t clear, has been barred from presidential press conferences is, without question, shocking and, well, bizarre. It may have no legal right to be there, no entitlement to a seat in the room, but we nonetheless accept it as the real deal, the legitimate news media.
That First Amendment can be inconvenient for anyone longing for power without scrutiny. Mr. Trump might want to brush up on what it means, and get used to it.
By barring it from the room, the Trump administration has changed a norm, if not a law, that we took for granted. It tells us that he is either too petty or clueless to appreciate what he’s doing. On the other hand, the New York Times might want to brush up on the First Amendment as well. It’s not that special that it gets to wrap itself in “free press” while using its barrels of ink to spew advocacy masquerading as news.
*The AP and Time magazine took the principled stance and refused to attend, even though they weren’t barred.