With everything that’s happened since Donald Trump’s election – the rash of hate crimes, his request to give his children top-secret clearance and his doubling down on his campaign pledges to reverse Roe v. Wade and create a Muslim registry, to name a few – it might not seem like such a big deal, comparatively, that the president-elect didn’t allow press to travel with him for his first meeting with President Obama at the White House or to dinner with his family in Manhattan. But it shouldn’t be brushed aside; Trump’s antagonistic relationship with the press is a dangerous red flag about his impending presidency.
The National Press Club sent Trump a letter on Wednesday, cosigned by 17 other media-advocacy groups, urging him to create a press pool – a group of security-cleared reporters to follow all of his public movements. The letter includes a reminder that every president since FDR has honored this tradition. “The role of the press pool is critically important to our country, whose citizens depend on and deserve to know what the president is doing,” the letter reads. “This isn’t about access for the press itself, it’s about access for Americans in diverse communities across the country.
Trump hasn’t explicitly said he won’t have a press pool once he takes office, but journalists, including those represented by the National Press Club, worry what his actions so far signal about the kind of press access he’ll allow during his presidency.
Alt-Right media site Infowars – which is run by Alex Jones, a racist conspiracy theorist who supported Trump’s campaign – called journalists’ response to Trump ditching reporters this week a “hissy fit,” saying it was ridiculous that the press should expect to be alerted to everything Trump does. But, speaking on CNN about the precedent of exclusion that Trump has set, Brian Stelter stressed the importance of a president (or president-elect) allowing the press full access to his movements.
“The press pool keeps track of how many times President Obama goes golfing, or how many times President Bush went to his ranch,” Stelter said. Trump has already stated that he only intends to live at the White House part time, maintaining his residence in Trump Tower in Manhattan; without a press pool, how will the American people know how much time he’s spending governing? Stelter also evoked the “worst case scenario” of 9/11, noting that it was the press pool that kept track of President Bush’s movements on that day, assuring the public he was safe and in control.
President Obama has frequently been criticized for not living up to his early promises of a transparent administration – his was even called “one of the most secretive” in a Washington Post article that laid out how his administration withheld information about drone strikes and was severely punitive with whistleblowers. Forbes reported that the administration also took active steps to avoid having to share information with the public by limiting its obligation to comply with FOIA requests.
But Trump’s issues with the press go so far beyond a lack of transparency and restricted access: The much larger threat is the way he’s positioned himself as an adversary of the press in general. Although Trump recently claimed he would be “more restrained” on Twitter following his election, in the last week he’s continued to wage war on journalists – as he did throughout his campaign – tweeting that “the media” is responsible for protests that erupted after his election, and that The New York Times is “losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage” of him. (The Times responded that it has in fact seen a surge in subscriptions – as have several other publications.)
This combativeness will not only make it challenging for the press to cover Trump’s administration and get important information about his actions to the public, it also sets the stage for him to control the narrative, undercutting the media and ensuring his supporters won’t believe any negative coverage of him.
It cannot be overstated how incredibly dangerous this is. Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the press and position himself – and the Alt-Right media sites like Breitbart and Infowars that helped get him elected – as the only source of truth are not such a far cry from the all-propaganda state-run media of North Korea, or the only slightly less repressed media in Russia that exists only to pay lip service to Trump pal Vladimir Putin. Every despot from Hitler to Hussein has relied on propaganda to stay in power and placate their people. Trump is laying the groundwork to join their ranks, not only by doing everything in his power to delegitimize the press, but by appointing Breitbart executive chair Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist – the seeds of his very own Ministry of Propaganda.
Meanwhile, the far-right media sites that proliferated falsehoods that helped Trump win the presidency are continuing to further his charge against the “mainstream media,” making sure his followers don’t trust anything that’s reported about their supreme leader. In an article titled “Guardian Newspaper Declares War on Donald Trump,” Breitbart cites The Guardian‘s promise to hold Trump accountable for things like his proposed Muslim ban and how his business empire will be run while he’s in office, as evidence that the publication has an axe to grind – as if that weren’t the very definition of political journalism.
Trump’s been planting these seeds since early in his campaign, and it’s worked: His supporters already believe people protesting his election were paid to do so, and that the hate crimes that have been reported in the last week are “hoaxes.” If people don’t believe the negative things that are reported about a Trump administration, it won’t matter how much access the press has – but limiting that access is a way to ensure Trump can control the narrative down to the smallest detail.
So reaction to Trump not inviting journalists to a steak house is not a “hissy fit.” It’s a warning about the dangers of a president who not only doesn’t feel accountable to the press, but is actively antagonistic toward it – a president who goes out of his way to make sure his followers don’t believe what they read in the media so they’ll live in denial of every atrocious, unconstitutional act of his presidency. It’s no wonder “post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.
Several factors may have contributed to Donald Trump winning the presidency. Watch here.