Some of my conservative friends expressed their disgust at the actions of CNN reporter Jim Acosta, during that rarest of rare events, an actual presidential press conference. They found Mr. Acosta’s refusal to sit down and shut up to be offensive, and many celebrated when the White House (and by that, of course, we mean the president; no one would take that action without the boss’s approval) stripped Mr. Acosta of his press pass and barred him from the White House grounds.
To many of the president’s supporters, this action was long overdue and appropriate, given what they see as the avalanche of “fake news” that they think gets presented to the American public. But I would ask my conservative friends, and, frankly, all Americans, to think carefully about how much control you wish to give any elected official over the news media covering him or her.
Back in 1997 and 1998, I was fortunate to spend my summer academic breaks from teaching at the Air Force Academy at the White House, as a staffer on the National Security Council. I held a lofty title: Director of Global Environmental Affairs, which sounds impressive, until I tell you that it was the lowest title of a staffer on the NSC. Still, it was incredibly cool to work in the White House every day. We were very busy, but when I could steal a few minutes, I’d walk over to the press room to watch the daily press conference (Note to those new to White House procedures: A near-daily press briefing had been the norm for decades. The current press secretary holds far fewer press conferences, so the word “daily” can probably be dropped).
So, where was I? Oh yes, the press room. I came away from those press briefings with two thoughts. First, I was awed by the fact that a president was accountable to the American people by an adversarial press. Second, I was amazed at how small a room the press room really is.
I had a chance to talk about my impressions with the then-press secretary, in his office, where I saw the famous flak jacket that is traditionally passed down from one press secretary to the next, with obvious symbolic meaning. The press and the White House are supposed to be confrontational and argumentative. The whole “democracy dies in the dark” thing is correct.
Which is why, my fellow Americans, the actions of the White House should be so deeply troubling. Even if you believe Mr. Acosta was being breathtakingly rude (which I don’t) and even if you believe he should have sat down and shut up (which I don’t), I hope we can agree it is a dangerous precedent to allow any elected official, especially the president, to decide who gets to ask questions. Oh, and also, don’t share a doctored video of the incident to try to make the president look good.
I’d ask my conservative friends to consider their reaction if, say a previous president (cough…Obama…cough) had been rudely questions by, say, an adversarial reporter (cough…Fox News…cough), and then he banned that reporter from the White House. Would you agree that reporters should always be nice, or would you rail against a president picking who gets to inform the American people? I’d respectfully offer that if your view on what’s right in this situation varies by who is president, we have a problem.
Walter Lippman, the old journalist from the last century, is said to have remarked “the job of a free press in a free society is to inform, not that it will do so perfectly at any one time or from any one source.” Mr. Lippman was basically saying that to be an informed electorate, we need to consume news from multiple sources all the time. Any one source may well have a bias. Now I can almost here my gentle readers nodding in agreement, but I suspect they don’t all agree on which news source is biased and which is not.
I am not a journalist. I’m a talking head, or typing fingers, or something like that. But I revere the 1stAmendment and the craft of journalism. If we ever accept that an elected leader – and a president in particular – gets to decide who gets to ask what questions, we have started to slide down a slippery slope. If you allow a president to decide who dares to ask him a question, we are in deep trouble as a nation.
Rude reporters are better than silenced ones.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.