The nation’s intertwined media and political elites are in an uproar over President-elect Trump’s performance at his press conference yesterday – the first he’s held since July. Their stated fear: Mr. Trump’s refusal to answer questions from a CNN reporter at the session add to evidence that he and his administration will be willing to “retaliate, bully, and ban journalists whose questions he doesn’t want to answer.”
As a result, the media won’t have “the access and information necessary to accurately and honestly cover the new administration” and the public will lose out “on the perspective those reporters bring, and we as an industry lose out in our efforts to hold power accountable.”
Sounds pretty serious. Except here’s what these supposed watchdogs of democracy either don’t get or won’t admit: More than ever before in recent memory, the Mainstream Media that Mr. Trump has so often attacked are hardly the totality of the U.S. media universe. They’re clearly not the totality of the competent or intellectually honest U.S media universe. And therefore, restricting some of their members’ access to American officials no longer means that the public’s right to know need be endangered.
The nation, and especially those increasingly overlapping political and media classes, have gotten so used to the structure of the journalistic universe as it’s evolved in recent decades that everyone’s forgotten that it has never, and shouldn’t be, set in stone. More specifically, although freedom of the press unmistakably is and should be protected vigorously by the Constitution, the role of today’s leading national news organizations, and in particular, the current White House press corps, has no legal or Constitutional basis. Nor should they enjoy such a privilege.
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), for example, exists and itself influences access to White House officials through its membership criteria, solely at the president’s behest. No government officials are required to deal with reporters on its roster, and as the organization itself acknowledges, presidents have treated it with dramatically varying measures of respect and disdain for more than a century.
In fact, the last word on who can interact in the role of journalists with government officials on any level legally belongs with government agencies themselves. In the words of this 2014 Harvard University study on such issues, the First Amendment
“does not cover the full spectrum of newsgathering activity, and, as presently understood, does not confer a right to gather news in particular places or circumstances to which the public is not otherwise admitted. This includes access to private events, as well as access to nonpublic spaces owned by the government (such as government offices and prisons).”
Could American leaders exploit this situation in order to deny the public the information it needs to evaluate their performance, and weaken the vibrancy of truly representative government? Of course. But keep the following three considerations in mind:
First, according to the Harvard report, “Recognizing that effective newsgathering requires greater levels of access than what the First Amendment provides, legislators and regulators at various levels of government have adopted policies granting to a subset of the public identified as the ‘press’ certain privileges to do things that ordinary citizens may not.”
In addition, as this study documents, the courts have demonstrated a clear determination to ensure extensive access by journalists to public officials, and to define “journalist” in ways that have enabled aggressive reporting.
Regarding worries about the presidency in particular, the federal government also contains a legislative branch with plenty of members of opposition political parties. Even disgruntled members of a president’s own party have ample means to disclose information they consider important – either through their authority to compel testimony and reports from the executive, as well as their power of the purse; or by working with the media themselves.
Second, how democratic would it be to empower the media themselves – which after all consist overwhelmingly of privately owned, profit-seeking businesses – to determine who can attend press conferences and belong to media pools covering traveling leaders? Indeed, how democratic would it be to entrust the establishment media specifically with this responsibility?
These businesses – again at the government’s sufferance – already play a decisive role in these matters. How many Americans – outside Beltway insider circles – are satisfied with the results? And what evidence is available that the White House Correspondents Association has adequately disciplined members who have been exposed as partisans? As little as has been seen from the journalistic employers of these hacks – who don’t seem to have fired any of them.
Third, the better establishment journalists perform at reporting accurately and impartially, the likelier they are to create, maintain or reestablish the kinds of informal relationships with the widest variety of officials that have always been central to the most valuable investigative reporting – as opposed to shouting questions in the White House press room. And don’t forget the importance of filing Freedom of Information Act suits, or even keeping up with information on the public record – which can be astonishingly revealing.
In the meantime, the incoming administration has indicated that it’s thinking of introducing some badly needed accountability of its own into its dealings with the press – for example, Mr. Trump’s refusal to respond to the CNN reporter in the (not unreasonable) judgment that the organization has too often fallen short of best journalistic practices. Moreover, his press secretary-designate, Sean Spicer, has spoken of changing the authorized White House press pool in various ways in order to reflect better the makeup of contemporary journalism.
So America may be heading towards a world in which presidents (and other senior government officials) don’t feel any particular need to deal with, say, CNN. Or The New York Times. In the short term, the result might be a rocky period for the government, for the media, and possibly for the flow of high quality information a real democracy needs. Yet the status quo ante plainly was not sustainable – both because of new technologies that have been rapidly transforming the media landscape, and because traditional journalism’s recent performance in particular has been so deficient.
But American leaders will still have powerful interests in getting their stories and narratives out through news organizations with large audiences. That’s why I’m confident that, however scornfully they treat individual media companies, they’ll nonetheless wind up dealing with responsible and dedicated journalists. And who knows? Maybe heightened competition will help make the Mainstream Media great again.