The Hundred Year Cold Shoulder: Trump vs the WHCA

There’s history to Trump’s gaggle order. 

If you hadn’t heard the news that Trump recently blocked several major news outlets from attending the White House press conference, then that Would be quite ironic. After all, some of the largest organizations in the business – CNN, Politico, Buzzfeed, the New York Times, the Daily Mail, the BBC – are now locked out of vital discussions. So you’d be in good company.

Both the Associated Press and Time magazine boycotted the meeting in protest, with a select group of right-wing news media, the likes of Breitbart, One America News, and the Washington Times being allowed in.

The White House Correspondents Association also protested the move, in a statement issuing:

“The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House. We encourage the organizations that were allowed in to share the material with others in the press corps who were not. The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”

Naturally, to the agony of the newly elected President who is still just a month old at this point, there has been considerable backlash from these news outlets. Some opposed to the idea stress that the move is unconstitutional. Not many, however, are talking about whether or not there is a precedent set for this kind of decision.

In fact, just over a hundred years ago now in 1913, the WHCA was formed in response to Woodrow Wilson’s threat to end press conferences altogether. Similarly to how Trump’s relationship to mainstream left-wing media is volatile, Wilson complained that”certain evening newspapers” quoted remarks that he considered off the record. In response, a band of correspondents assembled to agree upon a code of conduct as to which they would follow, which for a short while dissuaded Wilson’s distaste.

It was only six months later in January 1914 that another feud arose over White House coverage. This was to be the birth of the WHCA. Their intent was to stop Wilson from ending press conferences by applying media pressure upon him. A hundred years since, the groups mission has grown into aiming for broader access to the White House for greater transparency.

Ultimately, the WHCA’s efficacy was limited. Wilson quit holding scheduled conferences in June of 1915, only holding one more in his first term, late in the reelection campaign of 1916.

However, whereas Wilson simply shut down conferences to all media outlets, Trump is playing favorites. His special concessions to Breitbart and his intention to “aggressively push back” at “false narratives” may hint at something else. One could easily argue that in carrying out this decision, Trump is boosting the popularity and legitimacy of some outlets that had before been considered fringe, conspiratorial news outlets. His administration’s already infamous “alternative facts” debacle (thanks to the wonderful Kellyanne Conway) and harrowed insistence on making up terrorist incidents in Sweden and Bowling Green threaten to deceive the American public.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. You only have to go back as far as 2009 when the Obama administration was accused of excluding Fox News from a round of interviews with Kenneth Feinberg. The issue involved an email where between an exchange between Dag Vega, director of Broadcast Media on the White House staff, and Jenni LeCompte, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the Treasury Department. Vega informed LeCompte that “…we’d prefer if you skip Fox please.”
On October 23, 2009, Josh Earnest described the White House’s position on Fox News to LeCompte as: “We’ve demonstrated our willingness and ability to exclude Fox News from significant interviews…” This dispute between Fox News and the White House was resolved when the Washington press corps decided to boycott the interview with Feinberg, unless the Treasury eased up on Fox News.

Both Obama and Trump examples are troubling for a free press. But what occurred in 2009 was a far cry from the exaggerated cold-shouldering of so many news outlets by the Trump administration. Obama’s people kept talking to Fox News. And it was the Treasury Czar who made that 2009 decision, not the President. And it’s also hard to find the bit where Obama stated that the media was the “Enemy of the people”.

Remember though, they were banned from a “gaggle” that took place before the full press briefing, meaning that some news organizations get exclusive access to the President before anyone else.

Be under no illusion, what Trump did is perfectly legal. CNN and the NYTimes are still allowed to report whatever they want to. Trump just doesn’t have to give them face to face access. Not even the briefing room is actually required. The press corps exists only as a tool for the president to use, not vice versa. Several Court decisions (Houchins v KQED 1978; Pell v Procunier 1974; Richmond Newspapers v Virginia 1980) point to the conclusion that the press clause does not confer on the press the power to compel government to furnish information or give press access to information that the public doesn’t have.

So really it doesn’t involve a question of legality, rather the decision raises the question: “Is the White House using a gaggle to avoid regular press conferences and funnel information that should be more public through favorable sources?” Is Trump shaping the narrative away from criticism and towards praise? Will we see a press capable of questioning unpopular decisions and further investigating charges of misdeeds? How can we truly defend against fake news?

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