These are difficult times for America’s journalists, and not just because it’s been such a struggle to replace the failed business models of the 20th Century (but hey, we’re working on it). Since the dawn of the 2016 presidential campaign, reporters have been harassed, threatened and even arrested and charged with felonies for simply doing their jobs. The winner of that election has threatened to remove libel protections and retaliate against specific news organizations while riling up crowds against the media at his Nuremberg-style rallies. Some moves by the Trump administration are unprecedented, including the latest: Frequently ordering journalists not to film the daily presidential briefings by Sean Spicer or his surrogates, another brick in the wall that Team Trump is constructing against press freedom.
But instead of canceling them entirely, the White House has appeared to embrace a different strategy: simply downgrading them bit by bit, from “briefings” to “gaggles,” and from on-camera to off-camera. Guidance for the briefings have begun to include a note that audio from them cannot be used. Additionally, though Trump has held short press conferences when foreign leaders visit, he has not held a full press conference since February.
The changes haven’t gone unnoticed, although reporters are still attending the gaggles. A clearly exasperated Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, said on Monday that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had become “kind of useless.”
“It feels like we’re slowly but surely being dragged into what is a new normal in this country, where the president of the United States is allowed to insulate himself from answering hard questions,” Acosta said on CNN. “I don’t know why we covered that gaggle today, quite honestly Brooke, if they can’t give us the answers to the questions on camera or where we can record the audio. They’re basically pointless at this point.”
Asked for further comment, Acosta said in an email, “Unless we all take collective action, the stonewalling will continue.” “If the WH is going to place unreasonable demands on our newsgathering, we should walk out,” he said.
Yes, Jim Acosta of CNN, you should walk out. Because things are only getting worse: So far today, Acosta sparred with Spicer over the lack of cameras and then his boss, President Trump, held another joint appearance with a major world leader, India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi, in which he broke with tradition and refused to answer questions — building on a pattern of Trump avoiding press contact beyond the friendly confines of “Fox and Friends.” At a moment when the American people have more questions than ever for our government, this is the only wall the Trump administration has successfully built, a wall against the public’s right to know.
And yet Beltway reporters feel they are in something of a bind. As a journalist myself, I get it. The rank-and-file of the press corps may harbor a rebellious spirit, but reporters have bosses, and their bosses are demanding unimpeded access to the decision makers. And any affirmative action by journalists — walking out of Spicer’s dog-and-pony show, for example — will get spun in today’s political wars as a one-sided, partisan ploy. (And, as an important aside, yes, I agree that the briefings get too much attention, and that the journalism we’ll remember from the Trump era will be shoe-leather investigative reporting; the media critic Jay Rosen is right when he says the White House briefings should be covered by interns. But there are still principles of openness and accountability here.)
Here’s the thing: News outlets both on TV — especially Acosta’s CNN — and in print, like the New York Times and Washington Post, have seen their viewership and their digital subscriptions rise for one reason: They promised, in the Age of Trump, to report fearlessly. “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” according to the Post’s instantly famous slogan — but if that’s the case, why do you sit there and say nothing while the camera lights are extinguished? Because it looks like you’re cowering in the deathly darkness of undemocracy.
Fearless journalism isn’t just asking tough questions but also standing up in meaningful ways against the current, dangerous descent into authoritarianism. The folks who hate you are still going to hate you at the end of the day, but you’ll win a lot of newfound respect from the rest of America by standing up for press freedom. So the next time Sean Spicer tells you to turn off the cameras, I implore you to turn them on. You need to find out what happens next. We all need to find out