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The President and the Press: A Very Dangerous Precedent?

February 21, 2017

Several news outlets have spoken out about President Trump for calling on only conservative and conservative leaning news outlets in three joint news conferences with foreign leaders over the last few weeks. Both questions from Wednesday’s news conference did not touch on Flynn or Russia more generally, which the Washington Post called a “very dangerous precedent.”

This may lead one to wonder how unprecedented this behavior really is (although perhaps not, given the number of Trump-related headlines with the word “unprecedented” in recent weeks). According to NBC’s Carrie Dann, at President Obama’s first two joint news conferences with foreign leaders, he called on USA Today, the WSJ, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg; President Bush called on the Associated Press, Reuters, NBC, and Fox News twice, and CNN one time.

President Trump is not alone in seeking favorable coverage outside mainstream media. As Politico has reported, Nixon reached out to local broadcasters, Bill Clinton appeared on late-night talk shows, and Obama participated in Reddit chats and faux interviews on FunnyorDie.com. At the same time, these politicians felt an obligation to hold news conferences even when hostile questions seemed certain—Nixon took questions at the height of the Watergate scandal, and President Clinton was volleyed with questions about the Monica Lewinsky scandal during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

President Trump’s behavior is thus not in line with recent precedent, but one may nevertheless question the actual value of news conference questions. In 2012, Kenneth Walsh, a former White House Correspondents’ Association president, criticized an Obama press conference as “less of an illuminating give-and-take and more of a television promotion in which the president demonstrated his ability to avoid answering questions and at the same time showed a fresh sense of confidence and command spawned by his re-election victory last week.”

News conferences themselves may not be particularly illuminating, but President Trump’s unwillingness to engage with the mainstream media at these conferences is representative of his general hostile attitude toward mainstream media. Trump did not hold his first news conference until January 11, the longest any president-elect had waited since at least Jimmy Carter.  In his first full day in office, President Trump called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and White House press secretary Sean Spicer criticized news organizations for deliberately misstating the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. At a recent news conference, Trump lashed out at the “dishonest media,” “fake news,” and the “dishonest people” from news organizations in the audience. 

In its criticism of President Trump’s most recent joint news conferences, the Washington Post drew a clear distinction between the free and independent press, trying to hold power to account, and the partisan press, playing to a specific audience. Many commentators on the article pushed back, criticizing the Washington Post, the New York Times and others for pushing a liberal agenda. Indeed, a Gallup poll last September indicated that American trust in the mas media had fallen to 32%, the lowest level in Gallup polling history. The notable decline is fueled by Republican distrust, with only 14% of Republicans expressing trust in the media.

In this era of media mistrust, loudly vocalized by the President and largely believed by his supporters, the free press faces significant challenges in keeping the government accountable, but this is a time when we need good journalism most.