Trump banning order matters not one bit
Does Donald Trump believe in the well-established role of the press in American democracy? It certainly doesn't look that way. In recent months, his staff has roughed up a reporter and thrown another one out of a press event, and he has insulted journalists and blasted unfavourable news coverage.
Yet, he has benefited from oodles — that's the technical term — of free exposure in the media. And he obviously craves media attention, in much the same way an addict craves his fix.
Now, the latest chapter: calling The Washington Post phoney and dishonest, Trump has revoked the press credentials that allow Post reporters access to his campaign rallies.
This gives The Post unwanted membership in a growing club of banned news organisations, including Politico, BuzzFeed, the Des Moines Register and The Huffington Post.
The Post's executive editor, Martin Baron, called Trump's action “nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press”, and pledged that his paper would keep reporting vigorously about the presumptive Republican nominee.
Trump's immediate complaint was with a Post article written off a Fox News interview, in which the candidate criticised President Barack Obama after the Orlando massacre: “Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or he's got something else in mind. ... It's inconceivable. There's something going on.”
The Post reported that Trump was suggesting some tie between the President and the shooting; the story was a reasonable interpretation of what he said. An early headline was rewritten and made more restrained, not after a complaint, but at the editor's behest.
I tried yesterday to ask Trump further to explain his action against The Post, to see how broadly he intended to define the ban, and to ask him how he sees the role of America's free press. His communications director, Hope Hicks, didn't shut down the idea of such an interview, but said she would get back to me.
As of deadline, I hadn't heard from her again, but I'll keep trying to get Trump to answer these questions, sooner or later.
It is worth noting that Hillary Clinton, while she has not revoked any credentials or made bombastic speeches about phoney coverage, has been far less accessible than Trump — giving no press conferences and very few serious interviews. None of this bodes well for press access in 2017 and beyond. I will be trying to ask Clinton, too, how she intends to handle journalists if elected.
That is something that ought to matter deeply to American citizens. After all, journalists represent the public when they attend events, ask questions and dig for information. Trump, like Sarah Palin before him, may be trying to score points with his base, which considers the media infected with liberal bias.
Beyond the troubling big-picture questions, how much does it really hurt The Post not to have the credentials?
National political correspondent Karen Tumulty told me that is still unclear: “The value of that little piece of paper on a string around your neck is actually pretty limited. Often, it is most useful for the opportunity to talk to people in the crowd and hear what is on their minds.”
It becomes crucial, though, she said, when a candidate takes a trip overseas, as Trump is going to do soon. And “my real question here is whether a credential is the same as access”. Will The Post be able to get its questions answered by campaign officials and Trump himself or will it be cut off entirely?
At BuzzFeed, politics editor Katherine Miller told me that her organisation's best reporting work to date has had nothing to do with access, or lack of access, to Trump rallies, but much more with the time-consuming digging through audio recordings and following up on tips that reporter Andrew Kaczynski has been doing, far removed from public events. A lack of credentials has never “impeded our coverage or what we're trying to do”, Miller said. “The most interesting stuff isn't happening inside the arenas.”
She is right. And that has always been the case. Bob Woodward recalled the early retaliation by the Nixon Administration in 1972 to The Post's Watergate reporting: a society reporter, Dorothy McCardle, was banned from White House dinners and parties. “It was absurd,” he said. But it became far less so when The Post's broadcast licences were challenged, which in turn caused the company's stock price to plummet. ”They hit Katharine Graham where it could hurt,” Woodward told me. “And she didn't flinch.”
That's a solid tradition at The Post, where Baron said Monday that Trump coverage would plough forward, “honourably, honestly, accurately, energetically and unflinchingly”.
That matters more — a lot more — than a little piece of paper on a string.
• Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper