Sometimes I pass over a story that I might normally be expected to tackle. First, I can only manage to write two posts a day, sometimes not even that. Second, I try to be sensitive and some topics just really ought to be left alone. Third, some topics get old after a few posts and one finds oneself being repetitious. There is, however, one topic that I will always tackle when I see it, and that is free press/free speech issues. Today, it is back on my radar.
Reporters were barred from recording video or audio footage during Monday afternoon’s White House press briefing. The reason for this aberration? Who knows? The excuse Press Secretary Sean Spicer gave was that Trump had already given a comment earlier in the day and would be making another comment later in the day, thus … “there are days that I’ll decide that the president’s voice should be the one that speaks and iterate his priorities.” Who knew that we are limited to two comments per day?
CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta said, “Make no mistake about what we are all witnessing. This is a WH that is stonewalling the news media. Hiding behind no camera/no audio gaggles. It just 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.”
Even when cameras and recorders are allowed in, the press briefing has become a Cliff Notes version, yielding little, if any, useful information. Spicer’s briefing on Monday may have set a record for brevity — he took questions for less than 11 minutes. Among his responses to 22 questions, he cited previous presidential statements, deferred answering or said he didn’t know 11 times.
“One major change [from previous administrations] is the hostility emanating from the administration for certain members of the press,” said April Ryan, who has covered the White House since President Bill Clinton’s last term. Ryan said Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary, once described the White House’s interactions with the media as “a friendly adversarial relationship. Nowadays the friendly has been dropped from that analogy.”
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, whose opinion I generally respect, says that perhaps the daily press briefings no longer have value:
“Particularly in this administration, most of what you hear in a press secretary’s press conference, in that daily briefing, is misrepresentations, outright lies, and propaganda. And, on the whole, I think people would do better without that.”
I certainly agree with the first part of his statement, but disagree that we would do better without them. The press briefings are the chance to at least attempt to pin down the administration, to hold them accountable. Martha Kumar, a professor who studies White House communications, also disagrees with Sabato, saying …
“The briefing is an opportunity to hold people accountable, and just knowing that reporters are going to ask questions, that becomes part of policy thoughts and discussions within an administration.”
The level of secrecy within the administration is unprecedented. According to a Washington Post article this evening, in addition to the secrecy surrounding the senate health care bill, numerous federal agencies are refusing to share internal documents with Congress, Trump is still refusing to release his tax returns, visitor logs are no longer released by the White House, and Trump even refuses to admit whether he played golf on the weekends. “More and more in the Trump era, business in Washington is happening behind closed doors. The federal government’s leaders are hiding from public scrutiny — and their penchant for secrecy represents a stark departure from the campaign promises of Trump and his fellow Republicans to usher in newfound transparency.”
Even outgoing Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz said, “I see a bureaucracy that doesn’t want documents and the truth out the door . . . and just flipping the middle finger at Congress.”
I already believe Trump and his White House staff are guilty of gross abuses of power, lies, secrecy and deflection. Can you imagine how much worse it could be if there were no oversight by the press? If nobody had to answer, or at least pretend to answer the tough questions? Once we take away oversight by the press, we have opened the door for far more corruption than currently exists. We have opened the door from which our democratic freedoms will exit.