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Who Runs The White House Press Corral?

Jim Acosta
Jim Acosta in February 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

I don’t know what they’ve been teaching in journalism schools for the past 25 years, but they do not seem to have spent much time on the First Amendment.

For that matter, they may not be paying much attention to journalism.

By suspending the White House access of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta last week, the Trump administration merely did what the network should have done a long time ago. Acosta regularly makes a point of inserting himself into his stories about the Trump presidency, which needs no such embellishment. But doing so seems to address Acosta’s desires for attention and advancement.

The rationale that the White House offered for kicking Acosta off the premises does not hold up. Yes, there was technically contact between Acosta and the White House intern who tried to take away his government-issued microphone during a presidential press conference. But it was clearly an accident, the sort of minor brush that only the most overbearing referee would call as a foul in a basketball game.

Acosta’s genuine infraction, and one that the White House Correspondents’ Association seemed unable to recognize when it came to his defense, is that he forgot who runs the White House, including the press room.

Acosta asked a question about Trump’s characterization of the large group of migrants approaching the United States from the south. The president gave his answer, responsive or otherwise, and called for the next question. When the intern did what she had been trained to do – taking the mic and delivering it to the next questioner – Acosta had absolutely no right to refuse to hand it over. That action alone might have been enough to disqualify him as a participant in White House press briefings, though that punishment would strike me as unduly harsh had it been a first offense.

Of course, it wasn’t. Acosta makes a regular practice of confronting the president, with a frequency and to a degree that even some of his colleagues consider excessive. The White House didn’t single him out; he singled himself out.

Acosta’s clashes with Trump began before the president had taken the oath of office. He has regularly framed his questions in a combative way, leaning on the president’s criticism of CNN regardless of his question’s content. He’s also sparred with other members of the Trump administration and is known for shouting out questions if he feels he is being ignored.

Acosta is not the first journalist to make himself part of the story this way. Watching him occasionally reminds me of an infamous exchange in 1974 between Dan Rather and then-President Richard Nixon. During the height of the Watergate scandal, Nixon was making public appearances in an effort to salvage his administration’s credibility. Rather stood up to ask a question, generating a mix of applause and booing from the crowd. Nixon asked, “Are you running for something?” and Rather tartly replied, “No sir, Mr. President. Are you?”

Backlash to Rather’s perceived disrespect to the president and to the presidential office was immediate and intense. There were professional consequences for the reporter. While CBS did not want to be seen caving to the Nixon administration, almost as soon as Gerald Ford took office, the network removed Rather from the White House. CNN, on the other hand, chose to chastise the president and not its own employee.

The First Amendment guarantees the press the right to report and comment on the actions of President Trump and other government officials almost without limit. But it does not guarantee that the president, or anyone else, must answer any given journalist’s questions until that journalist is satisfied. Nor does it afford journalists, who are self-appointed representatives of their audience, any greater right to access government property than the members of that audience.

I can’t wander into the White House without an invitation. Absent special privileges, neither can journalists, regardless of who employs them. In this case, Acosta’s privilege was curtailed by canceling his “hard pass.” He may still be able to enter the White House, but the approval process will be more cumbersome going forward.

Media outlets and other White House correspondents, however, have been quick to characterize this as a broader attack on press freedom. Politico reported that the Acosta incident has triggered behind-the-scenes lobbying from the White House Correspondents’ Association and others. Meanwhile, other members of the press have called for more direct action, perhaps in the form of a walk-out. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post went so far as suggesting CNN should sue the White House. All of this reflects a press corps that is lazy, entitled and largely belligerent toward the current administration.

When the president carves out 90 minutes from his schedule to take questions from a group of reporters, the president gets to decide which reporters he answers and for how long. He, not reporters, won an election that gave him control of the White House. If Acosta wants to run the White House press room, he can run for office. (For all I know, he may hope to do so someday.)

If reporters don’t like how the press room is run, they can choose not to cover presidential press conferences gavel to gavel. They can do some actual reporting, select and frame the most relevant information, and provide coverage without placing their own correspondents in the narrative. They can even boycott the press room itself, and there have been suggestions to this effect. It isn’t a terrible idea. If the press thinks its work is being obstructed by government officials, or that an administration is trying to control their reporting by granting or revoking access, reporters should indeed find other ways to get the story.

Journalists just make themselves seem dim – or deceptive, which is worse – when they make irrelevant remarks like the claim to National Public Radio by Oliver Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, that “a president does not get to decide who covers them.” Acosta remains perfectly free to cover Trump, but he does not have a right to unfettered access to the White House to do so. Such access to an otherwise nonpublic space is a privilege granted, or revoked, at the executive branch’s discretion.

Everyone involved ought to dial down the temperature in the White House media room. The entire press is there only by the grace of the incumbent administration. There is nothing in the Constitution that stops this president or any other from simply repurposing that space and sending the journalists back to their corporate-funded offices. Reporters might discover that they can report news about a president from outside the executive mansion just as well as from inside – or, for that matter, better.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not members of the White House press corps when they broke the Watergate scandal, in what was arguably journalism’s finest moment since World War II. Today’s journalists would do well to take note.

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