In a little over a week, Donald Trump takes the oath of office. Yesterday, during a bizarre press conference, there were clear signs that office may slide straight into kleptocracy. There will be no divestment or blind trusts for Trump, who does not even believe that conflict of interest applies to him. Trump announced that his sons would run his business, then handed the mic to a lawyer to try to explain this weird arrangement that breaks tradition with every other modern American presidency. The director of the US office of government ethics promptly denounced it as “wholly inadequate,” but his protestation hardly matters. No one can force Trump to do the right thing. The overriding message from his press conference was that no one can force him to do anything. I use the term press conference loosely. It felt more like a twisted game show, complete with a laugh-track provided by paid Trump staffers who whooped it up for his occasional sneering joke, and clapped on cue throughout the script.
As for press freedom during the Trump administration, the worrying anti-press trend intensified before the presser even began, with Trump’s soon-to-be press secretary Sean Spicer and Mike Pence scolding the media for daring to print a story. Trump’s denunciation of BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage” and his statement “I think they are going to suffer the consequences,” should scare the hell out of everyone, regardless of whether you support or denounce BuzzFeed’s decision to print the unverified 35-pages of allegations against Trump. The president-elect’s refusal to take a question from CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and his denunciation of CNN as “fake news” tells us everything we need to know about his continued disdain for a free press.
So, the question remains, now what? Journalists need to stand together in the face of this threat to press freedom. If a reporter is denied the right to ask a question simply because the president doesn’t like his news organization, then the next reporter should ask the same question, and so should the next, and the next, all down the line until the question is answered, or, more likely, until the president storms out in a huff.
Many journalists will disagree with this strategy. What about getting the story? What about the competitive nature of news? So what if Jim Acosta is blackballed—too bad for him, but I don’t work for CNN. I don’t work for BuzzFeed.
But this isn’t business as usual for journalists or anyone else. This isn’t just another four years with another president. To be effective, we have to work together more closely. The wholly competitive news model isn’t the only model, as the level of international press cooperation on the Panama Papers showed us—though many of those journalists are now under threat. And what story, exactly, can any journalist hope to get from a Trump press conference? Any substantive reporting will doubtless take place far from the White House briefing room. How many official briefings can we expect from this president? Yesterday was his first press conference since July. As presidents elect, NPR reports that Barack Obama met with the press 18 times and George W. Bush spoke to them officially 11 times. Based on his behaviour to date, there is no reason to expect regular press access to this president and every reason to believe that Trump’s antagonism towards journalists will continue after January 20.
Standing up for press freedom also means journalists standing up for each other.
© 2017, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.