“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Benjamin Franklin
Appearing on the MSNBC “Morning Joe” program Tuesday March 21, White House correspondent for the political center-right Independent Journal Review, Erin McPike, explained why she was chosen as the only reporter allowed to travel with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson aboard his plane on his recent visit to Asia.McPike described how she contacted the State Department on several occasions for an interview with the Secretary of State with little results. Following publication of her article concerning Tillerson’s daily access to the President, Tillerson consented to grant McPike an interview during his Asia trip.
Associated Press White House correspondent Julie Page interrogated McPike about the ethics of her decision to accept Tillerson’s invitation when all other members of the press pool were barred.
Page asked, “Why not do the right thing for everyone and not just your news outlet? Do you think it hurts the case for press access going forward now that they [the Trump administration] know that at least one news organization will take this special access and not stand with the rest of the press core?”
“Well Julie,” retorted McPike, “I don’t know if that’s fair. I mean, if you had the opportunity to get the first interview with the Secretary of State, don’t you think you would have taken it?”
“Absolutely,” Page quipped,” but not if it’s on a plane at the exclusion of other reporters…. There’s a difference between an interview and then the traveling press core that sees the ins and outs of what the Secretary of State is doing, to know who he’s meeting with, to know what he’s doing.”
In her interview, McPike asked Tillerson if he would permit a larger press pool to accompany him in the future. According to Tillerson:
“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. Doing daily availability,” he added, “I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that, have a lot of things, have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media.”
Seated in studio next to Page, former Republican National Committee Chair, Michael Steele (2009-2011) made the insightful observation that he was witnessing in the exchange between these two reporters a rather successful and possibly intentional strategy of the Trump White House in creating tensions and imposing a wedge to separate and split the media.
Throughout his campaign to the present day, Donald Trump has energized his base of supporters by consistently blaming and attacking the media generally as well as specific outlets. A very brief sampling includes:
“[Journalists are] among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” He continually calls them “liars” whenever they write stories unflattering to him and his administration.
“The failing New York Times wrote a big, long front-page story yesterday. And it was very much discredited, as you know.”
Trump continues to describe the New York Times as “failing” even though subscriptions for this newspaper of note rose by 2.5 million alone since the November 2016 election.
Donald Trump apparently does not consider his style of presentation as combative, though he accuses the press of creating a confrontational climate.
“And I’ll tell you what else I see [in the media]. I see tone. You know the word tone [he said sarcastically]. The tone is such hatred. I’m really not a bad person, by the way. No, but the tone is — I do get good ratings, you have to admit that — the tone is such hatred.”
Trump admitted that he actually likes and has been positively energized by his feud with the media.
“I will be honest. I sort of enjoy this back and forth, and I have all my life, but I have never seen more dishonest people than frankly the political media.”
While Trump is passionate about his feud with the media, and though Tillerson has no “need” for them, our democracy, on the other hand, not only needs a free and unencumbered press, but it is existentially dependent on it.
So next time Trump or his White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, verbally attack individual journalists and entire press outlets or refuse to address their questions, the remainder of the press attending a briefing must make it known that they will refrain from asking further questions until and unless their colleagues’ receive either an apology or their concerns are addressed.
The reporters at Trump’s recent press conference should have stood unified following the President’s characterization of BuzzFeed as “a failing pile of garbage” for posting, along with some other outlets, an unverified dossier of information supposedly linking the Trump campaign directly to the Russian government.
They should have stood unified following Trump’s refusal to take CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s question at the same press conference because his network published a 2-page summary of that dossier. Said Acosta from the press gallery to the President,
“Since you are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question?”
Trump refused arguing: “They are very, very dishonest people,” and he moved on to take other reporters’ questions.
At press conferences, Trump tells reporters to “sit down” when they ask questions he doesn’t like, and he speaks of a “running war” with the media. He has even accused “freedom of the press” as the cause of terrorist bombings in the U.S.
His chief political strategist, former editor of the alt-right mouthpiece Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon, severely castigated the press by calling it “the opposition party”:
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while… The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Well, in his admission to “deconstruct the administrative state,” Bannon apparently wants to dismantle the free press. The Trump administration’s obvious “divide and conquer” or “divide and rule” (Latin dīvide et īmpera) strategy it hopes will have the effect of inhibiting the media from unifying and establishing a strong block to push for the truth by competing for the limited crumbs in the mirage of the tasty press-access pie.
While definitely tempting for reporters and media organizations to battle one another by pecking at the hard ground for these mere morsels of access, the higher goal of bringing truth to the people should outweigh the crumbs. The media will feed from the entire delicious pie if and when they remain unified.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).
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