'Media ban reminder of darkest chapters in US history', press body warns as Trump skips correspondents dinner

On Friday, the White House excluded several major US news organisations, including some it has criticised, from an off-camera briefing held by the press secretary. Reporters for CNN, The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed were not allowed into the session in the office of press secretary Sean Spicer.

Spicer's off-camera briefing, or "gaggle," replaced the usual televised daily news briefing in the White House briefing room. He did not say why those particular news organizations were excluded, a decision which drew strong protests, Reuters reported.

The White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) said it was "protesting strongly" against the decision to selectively deny media access. The New York Times said the decision was "an unmistakable insult to democratic ideals," CNN called it "an unacceptable development," and The Los Angeles Times warned the incident had "ratcheted up the White House's war on the free press" to a new level.

It is not uncommon for Republican and Democratic administrations to brief a limited number of reporters on specific themes. However, the Friday event was billed as a regular briefing open to credentialed media before it became a closed event in Spicer's office for a chosen group.

Several outlets that regularly cover the White House, including newswires Reuters and Bloomberg, attended. They are part of the "pool," a small group of reporters who have access to certain events and share the contents with other media.

'Action harkens back to the darkest chapters of US history'

The National Press Club has strongly condemned the exclusion, calling it "deeply disturbing". The move by President Donald Trump's administration was criticised for one, because the move was an unprecedented one, and as the "White House is actively running a campaign against a constitutionally enshrined free and independent press," National Press Club President Jeffrey Ballou said in the official statement. The statement further said:

"That the White House would block journalists from covering the daily off-camera briefing of reporters by the White House press secretary is wrong and we protest it in the strongest possible terms. The action harkens back to the darkest chapters of US history and reeks of undemocratic, un-American and unconstitutional censorship. The National Press Club supports our colleagues in the White House Correspondents Association in its protest and calls on the White House to reverse course. Like all presidents, President Donald Trump has a standing invitation to speak at the National Press Club and answer questions from our members. We can think of no better place to continue the debate about the role of the press and the First Amendment than the place where newsmakers and news reporters have met for more than 100 years."

President of National Press Club Journalism Institute (NPCJI) Barbara Cochran said, "...Trump said today that he is “not against the press,” just against the “fake news media.” But the Constitution protects all news organisations, not just those liked by this or any other president." She further added by saying that the President and his staff should stop interfering with "the ability of all news organisations to do their job of covering the White House."

The NPCJI's Press Freedom Fellow, Kathy Kiely said that the action would do more damage and harm to the White House than the banned news organisation. "Sadly, reporters are all too accustomed to working around officials who deny them access to information the public should have. The only thing new here is that the censors are not foreign despots but public servants paid by the US taxpayers. To coin a phrase: Sad!"


By boycotting the WHCA dinner, Donald Trump breaks a tradition that began in 1921 in which journalists invite the US president for a light-hearted roast.

Trump has regularly attacked the media and at a gathering of conservative activists on Friday he criticised news organisations that he said provide "fake news", calling them the "enemy" of the American people. Spicer said his team decided to have a gaggle in his office on Friday instead of a full briefing in the larger White House briefing room and argued that “we don't need to do everything on camera every day.”

Reporters at the Associated Press and Time magazine had walked out of the briefing when hearing that others had been barred from the session. Off-camera gaggles are not unusual. The White House often invites handpicked outlets in for briefings, typically for specific topics. But briefings and gaggles in the White House are usually open to all outlets and they are free to ask anything.

A pool reporter from Hearst Newspapers was included in the gaggle on Friday and gave full details to the entire press corps. Media outlets allowed into the gaggle also shared their audio with others.

Protests supporting media organisations

On Sunday, about 250 people demonstrated in support of the news media, amid stepped up attacks on the press by Trump and his administration. Although New York, a Democratic bastion, has been the scene of numerous demonstrations since Trump's election, this was the first protest organised expressly to show support for the media.

Paradoxically, Trump's attacks on the media during the presidential campaign and after his defeat of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have boosted a resurgence in public interest incisive news reporting. The New York Times, for instance, has gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers even as the media's battle with Trump has intensified, AFP reported.

Despite cold weather, protesters gathered outside the entrance to the headquarters of The New York Times in midtown Manhattan, some with bandages across their mouths and carrying placards citing the US Constitution guarantee of a free press. The demonstration later shifted from The New York Times to the nearby offices of Fox News, then to those of NBC News.

"Anytime an authoritarian person or dictators take charge they always stifle the press. It's always the first thing they do. We are in the first steps of fascism," said Donna Marie Smith, a retired school teacher and longtime Times subscriber. "We have to continue marching and the press has to keep covering it," she said, adding, "I do think we will overcome even though I don't know how long it will take."

Trump skips annual White House correspondents' dinner - First time in 36 years

Trump further ratcheted up his feud with the US media by announcing he will skip the annual White House correspondents' dinner, the first US president to do so in 36 years. By boycotting the event Trump breaks a tradition that began in 1921 in which journalists invite the US president for a light-hearted roast.

The last time a president missed the event was in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was recovering after being shot in an assassination attempt. Reagan however phoned in with friendly remarks. Richard Nixon, who despised the media, skipped the event in 1972. Trump frequently blasted the mainstream US press during the election campaign, and as president has intensified his media-bashing. He ripped The New York Times on Sunday for a television ad that the newspaper will air during the Oscars ceremony stating "The truth is more important now than ever." Trump tweeted:

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2017 14:10:48 IST

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