The Presidency & White House

Issues ››› The Presidency & White House
  • The White House Correspondents' Association's Feckless Response To Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    On Friday, President Donald Trump told a crowd of cheering supporters that major news outlets are “the enemy of the people” because they make up critical stories about his administration. Press secretary Sean Spicer followed up that rhetoric by barring credible journalists from a press gaggle while making room for pro-Trump reporters.

    While collective action remains in short supply, the moves drew quick denunciation from the press. "I find it deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable that the White House is actively running a campaign against a constitutionally enshrined free and independent press," National Press Club President Jeffrey Ballou wrote in a statement. "The action harkens back to the darkest chapters of US history and reeks of undemocratic, un-American and unconstitutional censorship.”

    But as criticism of the White House poured in, one party proved noticeably timid: the White House Correspondents’ Association, which represents the very White House press corps that remains constantly in the administration’s sights.

    After an initial statement in which he said the WHCA was “protesting strongly against how today's gaggle is being handled by the White House,” the organization’s president, Jeff Mason, embarked on a media tour in which he has seemingly run damage control for the White House press office. In several interviews, Mason has paired tepid criticism of the Trump administration’s actions with praise for the access the administration has granted reporters.

    “We’re not happy with how things went today,” Mason told The New York Times the same day. “But it’s important to keep in mind the context of how things have gone up until now.” Stressing that the White House continues to do daily press briefings, he added: “I don’t think that people should rush to judgment to suggest that this is the start of a big crackdown on media access.”

    “I think it’s worth noting that since Sean became press secretary, he`s been having regular briefings in the White House press room on television. I would -- I’m reluctant to draw conclusions from what happened today,” he said on MSNBC’s For the Record that night. “We don`t like what happened today, but I want to look at the full record and also say we’ve had pretty good access so far. We hope that that is the trend that continues and not a trend of excluding news organizations.”

    “It's important, I think, for viewers to know that despite that rhetoric, we have worked well with the Trump White House. We have had many opportunities for journalists to ask questions of the president and of his press team,” he added on today’s Morning Joe.

    He later added: “I want to put it in the larger context of what has happened during this first month. During the first month, Sean Spicer has been briefing regularly from the briefing room and on television and that is what we asked for. And so that is important not to forget. The fact that they did not include a bunch of organizations on Friday is certainly a concern. And, of course, it comes in the context of President Trump saying things like the fact that he believes the media is the enemy of the American people. We absolutely do not believe that.”

    Taking questions from journalists at daily press briefings is not some special privilege that Spicer has provided. It is literally the least that any journalist could expect from a press secretary. And the vitriol that Trump wields on a daily basis deserves more than mild disagreement.

    Either Mason is truly unconcerned with the attacks the Trump administration has heaped upon the press or he is desperately fighting to preserve the very basics of press access.

    As Poynter’s James Warren wrote of Mason’s comments to the Times:

    It was disappointing and suggested an underlying craving by some for peace and moderation and press-White House harmony. Intentional or not, it suggested how a bully can intimate his victims and make some of them cower.

    Friday's outrage over the gaggle in Spicer's office is a hint of things to come. It was a toe in the water. It's like, as a friend puts it, "The Trump administration is basically boiling the frog, and the frog is better off not being tepid when the water turns lukewarm."

    During an era in which the president and his officials have attacked the press in unprecedented fashion -- with Trump himself declaring that he is in “a running war with the media” -- Mason has repeatedly been called upon to respond. And again and again, he has seemed more concerned with preserving his relations with Spicer and the press office than with defending journalism in the age of Trump.

    At times, Mason’s interviewers have seemed shocked at Mason’s willingness to downplay the Trump administration’s efforts to delegitimize journalism.

    On January 22 -- the morning after Spicer used his first appearance before the press corps as White House press secretary to attack reporters for accurately reporting on the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration -- Mason appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources. While Mason acknowledged that Spicer’s comments had been “stunning,” he praised the White House for keeping the press briefings in their current location and allowing a pool to observe Trump signing an executive order (again, the bare-minimum expectations for what the White House should do).

    Watch host Brian Stelter try to get Mason to admit that the White House’s actions against the press have been extreme, and his response.

    BRIAN STELTER:There's clearly some anxiety here. What are you telling the White House correspondents about how to approach this?

    JEFF MASON: Well, for starters, I think it's important to reinforce the point that we've already made here at the panel, which is that there's always going be a level of tension between the White House and the press corps. That is normal, that is healthy, and that is something that we expect to continue here. That level of tension may have gone up a little bit --

    STELTER: May have?

    MASON: OK -- did.

    STELTER: He said there's a running war with the media. He's using war analogies. He's referencing combat.

    MASON: Yes, you're right. You're absolutely right. And we recognize that. And so, it puts some strain on the relationship. But it's in the interest of the White House Correspondents' Association to try to continue to be an honest broker and a good interlocutor between the press corps and the White House. And that's why it's important for me to keep meeting with Sean and our board to keep meeting with his team.

    In the weeks that followed, the Trump administration regularly attacked the press, with Trump himself repeatedly calling the media and various outlets “fake news,” “a disgrace,” “the opposition party,” “failing,” “dishonest,” and “the enemy of the American people.”

    But during a CNN International interview last week, Mason praised the access reporters have gotten to the White House, while saying only that “the tone set by the President has been a challenge.” That led to this exchange with host Hala Gorani (accessed via Nexis):

    HALA GORANI: But, Jeff, it's not every day the President of the United States calls reporters the enemy of the American people. This is the type of thing we expect to hear in the Middle East or in regimes, you know, that have not a great democratic sort of track record. I mean, did this send a chill in the White House press corp when you heard that?

    JEFF MASON: Well, it's not the type of tone that I would choose to set, but it's up to the President to decide what kind of tone he wants and to use the language that he wants. You know, I've said repeatedly, we don't influence the language --

    GORANI: It's not innocuous language, though. I mean, this is pretty serious, or actually it is --

    MASON: I agree.

    Mason is acting like he has no cards to play, as if the White House press corps exists by the sufferance of the administration. As long as the press corps engages in such open display of weakness, the White House will continue to see what it can get away with.

    Click here to tell the White House press corps to stand up to Trump’s media blacklist.

  • Trump Has Declared War On The Press. Media Should Come To The Battlefield

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    “We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, ... that is something that you can’t ban an entity from. Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that's what makes a democracy a democracy, versus a dictatorship.” Sean Spicer, December 16, 2016

    The White House’s petulant decision on Friday to ban several major news outlets from a media gaggle with press secretary Sean Spicer ignited justifiable outrage among journalists. And the outcry was noticeably bipartisan. “This is an attempt to bully the press by using access as a weapon to manipulate coverage,” warned Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page director for The Wall Street Journal.

    Now that outrage needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be backed up by the power and prestige of the country’s largest news organizations. In other words, it’s time for institutions to take collective action and fight back.

    Here’s what Media Matters stressed three months ago in the wake of Trump’s victory: Moving forward, news organizations face a stark, and possibly defining choice in terms of how they respond to any radical efforts to curb the media’s White House access."

    Since then, the Trump team has repeatedly pushed the press around. (Banning outlets from the gaggle on Friday was just the latest and most high profile example.) And time and again, the Trump team has gotten away with it.

    The kerfuffle wasn’t just a random power play designed to embarrass reporters from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the BBC, and other outlets that were shut out. It was part of a larger, well-orchestrated, and incremental campaign to cut off journalists from reporting on the government. (Note also that there have been no State Department press briefings since Trump was inaugurated.)

    All of this while the president forcefully moves to demonize America’s free and open press. “I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’ -- and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none,” Trump announced during his media-bashing address at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. We’re going to do something about it.”

    Yet even in the wake of last week’s stunning Trump attacks and the banning of outlets from a Spicer gaggle, we’re still not seeing the level of forceful group action from news organizations that the situation requires. (They took collective action to register complaints with the Obama White House.)

    To their credit, reporters from The Associated Press, Time, and USA Today decided to spontaneously boycott Friday's briefing. But while several outlets – including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and McClatchy newspapers – announced that they would not attend any future briefings where other outlets are banned, others dropped the ball. On Friday night, ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News all covered the White House’s attempt to ban certain news outlets from meeting with Spicer that day, but as Media Matters noted, none of them gave any indication that their networks would refuse to participate in future briefings that are similarly restrictive. (More than 320,000 people have signed Media Matters' petition urging members of the White House press corps to collectively stand up against Trump’s media blacklisting.)

    In addition to refusing to attend restricted briefings, news organizations have several ways to push back as a group. They should:  

    • Temporarily disinvite White House surrogates. Just as there is no law that requires the administration to have open briefings, there’s no law that says news outlets have to invite White House surrogates every week to their Sunday political news shows. (The Trump administration purposefully refuses to provide surrogates to certain CNN programs.) So the next time the White House tries to ban news outlets from getting access, all of the television players should temporarily disinvite administration surrogates as a way to register their deep concern.
    • Loudly demand that Spicer be fired. I understand that whoever replaces Spicer might engage in similar behavior. But with his recent attempt to bar major news outlets from a briefing (in addition to his weeks of pushing falsehoods from the podium), Spicer proved himself to be an unethical and untrustworthy spokesperson. To date, however, I haven't heard loud demands from major news organization or associations that Spicer, the point person for the White House’s war on the press, be fired. (Note: Axios reports today that in a highly unusual move, Spicer “personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit a New York Times article about Trump campaign aides' contact with Russia, then remained on the line for the brief conversations.”)
    • Boycott press events hosted by Spicer. That was the suggestion made by veteran journalist Kurt Andersen: 
    • Send the interns. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been advocating this approach for weeks: De-emphasize the significance of White House press productions by sending interns to cover the events while senior reporters are out in the field tracking down better leads. It “means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this," Rosen advised. "They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props.”
    • Stop televising so much of the White House press briefings live every day. The press briefings, in particular, provide a forum for administration misinformation. Why reward the White House with free daily airtime while it’s simultaneously waging a war on the press, and specifically while it's trying to deny access to certain news outlets?

    The Trump White House bars CNN from a press “gaggle,” so CNN punishes the White House by airing its press briefings live most days?  

    With a payoff like that, why would the White House ever stop its dangerous and destructive behavior?

  • Trump’s Russia Ties Conspicuously Absent From Fox News Sunday

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN

    The ongoing saga surrounding reported entanglements between President Donald Trump, his current and former aides, and the Russian government was a leading topic of discussion for hosts and guests during the February 26 editions of the Sunday morning news shows -- except for Fox News Sunday, where the controversy was barely mentioned.

    The Trump administration has been dogged for months by rumors and allegations that members of the president’s inner circle had improper or compromising interactions with agents of the Russian government during the campaign. Michael Flynn was recently forced to resign as national security adviser after details became public about his possibly illegal discussions about lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia with a Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration. Trump himself has been briefed by American intelligence authorities about reports that Russian operatives may have “compromising personal and financial information” about him in their possession.

    In the past several days, outlets including CNN, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post reported that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had reached out to members of the intelligence community and Republican congressional leaders for help in tamping down stories regarding the Trump administration and Russia. In response to those reports, Trump has lashed out at news outlets, falsely calling the stories “FAKE NEWS,” and White House press secretary Sean Spicer blacklisted several news outlets from taking part in a February 24 press briefing. The commotion last Friday surrounding Trump’s potential relationships with Russia and his administration’s handling of the situation led one Republican member of Congress -- Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) -- to call for a full investigation by an independent special prosecutor.

    For most of the Sunday shows this week, the continuing story was a major part of the day's conversation. NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, summarizing the most recent news on Trump and Russia, even pointed out that Trump’s war on the press always “seems to escalate” whenever new developments arise in the story about his ties to Russia. All told, four of the major Sunday shows -- ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, and NBC’s Meet the Press -- dedicated a total of more than 49 minutes to the topic, with at least two full segments on the scandal on each. In contrast, Fox News Sunday barely covered it, featuring only a single question and response on Russia that added up to barely more than a minute.

    Along with mostly ignoring the most recent Russia scandal, the Fox show featured a guest defending Trump’s attacks on the media. The network, which was previously instrumental in helping normalize Trump’s cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, seems bent on helping Trump normalize his crusade against media outlets that are trying to get to the bottom of these connections.

  • Why Conservatives Love Trump's Attacks On Journalists

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Over the past five days, the White House chief strategist called the press the “opposition party” and threatened to destroy it, the press secretary barred major news outlets from a press gaggle while opening the door to right-wing outlets, and the administration announced it would be giving a plum Oval Office interview to a Breitbart.com reporter considered among the administration’s most sycophantic media boosters.

    The Trump administration’s press strategy is clear: delegitimize mainstream news organizations, especially those that produce critical reporting that jeopardizes its efforts, while lifting up unabashed propaganda outlets.

    And his fans love it.

    “I want you all to know we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake!” President Donald Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” His supporters responded to Trump’s six-minute attack on the press with laughter, cheers, and chants of “USA! USA!”

    While some conservative media figures are speaking out against the Trump administration’s efforts to manipulate coverage and damage the institution of the press, many more can’t get enough of the way he treats journalists with utter contempt and grinds them into the dirt.

    And those opinions are mimicked by their audiences. Seventy-three percent of Republican voters approve of the way he talks about the media, according to a recent poll. Nearly four out of five trust President Trump more than the press to tell the truth.

    But those views are wildly out of step with the rest of the American public, which overwhelmingly disapproves of Trump’s conduct and trusts him less than the media.

    This divide is the result of extremely successful efforts by Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets to convince conservatives that the mainstream press is liberal and deceitful and that only avowed right-wing sources can be trusted to provide the facts.

    Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.

    As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.

    This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. As Mark Feldstein detailed in June:

    Just a few months after [Nixon’s] election, he dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to launch a public assault on the “small and unelected elite” of journalists who held a “concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” Nixon publicly said that he hadn’t heard Agnew’s speech. In fact, he had privately approved it word-for-word ahead of time, chortling that it “really flicks the scab off.”

    In addition, Nixon invited top broadcast executives to the White House and told them that “your reporters just can’t stand the fact that I am in this office.” Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler declared that all of the TV networks were “anti-Nixon” and would “pay for that, sooner or later, one way or another.” Another top adviser, Charles Colson, told the head of CBS News that Nixon’s administration would “bring you to your knees” and “break your network.”

    “The press is your enemy,” Nixon told Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a private meeting in February 1971. “Enemies. Understand that? . . . Now, never act that way . . . give them a drink, you know, treat them nice, you just love it, you’re trying to be helpful. But don’t help the bastards. Ever. Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”

    Given his criminal activity, Nixon was right to fear the press. The dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward eventually forced his resignation -- giving conservatives a new data point in their grievance against the media.

    As conservative politicians lashed out, conservative activists tried to build their own outlets. A central premise of such outlets was that they were needed because, as Agnew claimed, the press was irreparably liberal.

    Two decades before Roger Ailes founded Fox News and began building it into a conservative media juggernaut, the former Nixon aide served as news director of the fledgling Television News Inc., a conservative news outlet that claimed nonpartisanship but was funded and led by right-wingers.

    But TVN was unable to find an audience, bled millions of dollars, and lasted only a couple years. And as Republican presidents racked up victories in the years to come, the impetus behind purely right-wing outlets -- outside of a handful of conservative magazines and journals that largely served elite audiences -- dissipated.

    But in 1992, Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush, whose campaign spent its final months urging supporters to “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush.” Clinton’s victory unleashed a new, grass-roots-focused wave of right-wing talk radio hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh.

    These radio hosts provided conservative news, opinion, and talking points to a broad audience, while simultaneously targeting individual Democratic lawmakers for defeat. They were an alternative news source that sought to delegitimize both the new administration and the press that covered it. The result was the “Limbaugh Congress” of 1994, which made the radio host an unofficial member of the House Republican caucus.

    Two years later, Fox News was founded. Its “fair and balanced” mantra implicitly suggested that the network’s competitors were not. And the hosts and anchors have spent the last two decades making that subtext text, attacking other journalists and media outlets on a regular basis and constantly suggesting, as Agnew insisted decades before, that the press consists of untrustworthy liberals.

    In Fox’s wake, new outlets like Breitbart have risen, all seeking to mimic Fox’s success in attracting conservative audiences by condemning the rest of the press. The result has been plummeting trust in the press among Republicans.

    Once that effort was complete, the stage was set for Trump’s ascendance.

    “The conservative alternative media, and I'm part of that, grew up and I was very proud of that and I assumed that what we were doing was informing people, making people smart, giving people factual information, telling them the other side of the story,” conservative radio host Charlie Sykes said last year. “And unfortunately what's happened is it has morphed into this alternative reality whereas Joan says, we live in these different silos. And having discredited the mainstream media, now what do we have? We have the InfoWars, we have the Breitbarts, we have the Drudges, in which information is passed, things that that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever.”

    Trump and his advisers are trying to crystalize those changes. They want to convince as many of their supporters as possible that only Trump can be trusted. And after years of conditioning from this decades-long campaign, they have frighteningly little work to do.

    Click here to tell the White House press corps to stand up to Trump’s media blacklist.

  • On CNN, Journalists Provide Historical Context For Criticism Of Trump's Attacks On The Media

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On the February 26 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, journalists warned about the parallels between attacks on the free press from President Donald Trump and his administration and similar strategies used by President Richard Nixon and authoritarian regimes.

    Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor and conservative columnist Bret Stephens stated that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s decision to exclude certain outlets from a February 24 press gaggle is part of a strategy by the administration to “bully the press” and “manipulate coverage,” saying he “would call it Nixonian, except I think that would be unfair to the memory of President Nixon.” Stephens added, “if the administration is going try to boycott certain news outlets, then perhaps we should, as news organizations, return the favor to this administration”:

    BRIAN STELTER (HOST): When you invite a channel called One America News Network, which is so small it doesn't have Nielsen ratings, but then you exclude CNN, it's clearly a premeditated decision. So let me ask you Bret about this, does this feel like part of a strategy by the White House?

    BRET STEPHENS: Yeah, it seems, I would call it "Nixonian," except I think that would be unfair to the memory of President Nixon. This is an attempt to bully the press by using access as a weapon to manipulate coverage. And, I think The Wall Street Journal put out a statement that I thought was very clear: that if we had known what was happening we wouldn't have participated in that meeting with Mr. Spicer. And I think that's the right attitude for the rest of the press to take, that if the administration is going try to boycott certain news outlets, then perhaps we should, as news organizations, return the favor to this administration.

    In a later segment, columnist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News compared Trump’s relations with the media to that of “right-wing authoritarians in Europe in the 1930s” and “Hugo Chavez in Venezuela on the left in the 21st century,” stating, “the first thing authoritarian governments do is go after the media”:

    STELTER: Will, you wrote for the Philly Daily News that this language, “enemy of the people,” that it has historical parallels. Tell us about that.

    WILL BUNCH: Yeah, absolutely. If you look back, Brian, the last 100 years going all the way back to the rise of right-wing authoritarians in Europe in the 1930s, but follow a straight line all the way to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela on the left in the 21st century, and you’ll see that the first thing that authoritarian governments do is go after the media. And there's been concerns about Donald Trump, going back to the campaign, that he was going to try and run the government in an authoritarian fashion. And I think when he calls the press the "enemy of the American people," I think he’s playing exactly into the worst of what people feared from a Trump administration. Not to get too Orwellian here, but I think what's going on big picture is the Trump administration and his advisers like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump himself are in a war to control what is the truth. When they tell repeated lies like about the murder rate in America or even about little stuff like the number of people at his inauguration, they’re trying to create a scenario where they, and not the media, are the ones defining the truth. And so tearing down the media is also part of the strategy. And some of it doesn’t matter now, but in the months ahead there’s going to be big crises. We’re going to see his signature programs, like mass deportation implemented over the coming months. And the truth is going to become more and more important. And you know, just like Orwell warned in "1984", he who controls the truth is in control and I think that’s the big strategy here.

    Click here to tell the White House Press Corps to stand up Trump’s media blacklist.

  • Media Respond To White House’s Blacklist; Calls To Join AP, Time, And USA Today

    "The Society Of Professional Journalists Stands By Those News Organizations That Chose Not To Participate In The Briefing"

    ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Media are criticizing as "unacceptable" the Trump administration’s blacklisting of outlets from a White House briefing and some are considering joining the boycott of AP, Time Magazine, and USA Today immediately. Unlike those outlets, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News accepted the invitation to join the briefing and attended.