Trump Forced To Give Press Pass To CNN’s Acosta: Examining Media Access To The President And The First Amendment Implications
Donald Trump does not like CNN nor does he like CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. The President has, in fact, quite a confrontational relationship with what he calls the fake news network as well as the journalist, who he considers a “terrible person.” Mr. Trump does not like to take questions from Mr. Acosta nor does he want any CNN corespondent present at his news briefings. For his part, Acosta does not appear to personally like the President while he certainly likes to continually ask the same questions about subjects guaranteed to anger the President. The bad blood between the two men boiled over when Trump refused to answer two loaded questions from the corespondent and Acosta refused to hand over a microphone to a White House press aide. When the aide grabbed the microphone, most likely expecting the correspondent to yield, Acosta brushed her hand away. Essentially accusing the reporter of assault, the White House used the incident as an pretext to revoke Acosta’s press pass. The incident quickly raised important First Amendment discussions that were quickly usurped by criticism of the President and the Press.
Ultimately, CNN decided to sue the Trump Administration. Agreeing with the premise of the suit, which argued Administration officials violated Acosta’s First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights, federal judge Timothy J. Kelly compelled the Trump Administration to return Acosta’s “hard pass.” To fulfill his legal obligations, Trump has pledged to establish clearer rules of conduct for all journalists who attend his briefings. Naturally, the President was criticized for the handling of the situation, but CNN was as well. Renown journalist Bob Woodward, who built a career on confronting political wrongdoing, framed CNN’s reaction as the consequence of too many media figures becoming “emotionally unhinged.” While Mr. Acosta remained calm and in control throughout the entire ordeal, it was the President who chose to act on his emotional impulses and barrage the CNN correspondent with personal attacks. It was Donald Trump who chose to agitate the situation instead of deescalating it. That said, it was Acosta who refused to yield. It was also his decision to continually press the President on more detailed answers about issues guaranteed to embarrass and elicit emotional responses from the President.
For anyone who has ever watched a press briefing, “polite” and “engaging” do not quite describe how correspondents typically engage the person charged with answering their questions. A news briefing covered by a gang of journalists hungry for answers is like watching a pack of ravenous dogs tear a deer apart. It is true that reporters usually go silent whenever one of their peers is given a chance to ask a question and they tend to give the respondent a chance to speak, but they are there to ask their questions and to get answers. Unless the person at the center of the press briefing is apt enough to control the horde, they will crowd each other out and relentlessly hound their host until he, or she, flees the stage. Despite their ability to mask their emotional inflections during questioning, the clamoring journalists at a press briefing are just plain rude people to the causal observer. When they questions, which often have nothing to do with the subject at hand or continually reiterate the same concerns of media figures over and over again, it is very difficult to conclude these journalists go to news briefings as part of a public service. What Acosta and his fellow reporters should have done is accept the President’s responses then formulate more diplomatic questions that might allow them to get the answers the want from the President.
Access to public officials is not, however, about emotions or decorum. When people engage in civil discourse and adhere to niceties, they tend to have more constructive conversations, but politeness is not among the primary concerns. Freedom of the Press is enshrined in the First Amendment, in part, to ensure American citizens have access to their public officials and to ensure there is some form of accountability for public officials. The President cannot be allowed to arbitrarily pick and choose which reporters and which news outlets can have access to him or any other government official. If he could, he would select only those who provide him with favorable coverage, thus negating the purpose of providing public access to government officials. Although there are First Amendment protections compelling the President to entertain the questions of critical journalists, that does not mean reporters can do as they please. There can be limits on how journalists behave and which journalists are given access to the President.
In the Information Age, for example, what qualifies as the “Press” is a significant question. It was once easy to assume professional journalists belonging to professional organizations had enhanced First Amendment freedoms, which is something forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment, but anyone can be a journalist today. Unfortunately, not everyone can interview the President of the United States for practical reasons, so those who apply for White House press credentials must be able to meet certain criteria. These criteria can help bolster standards among reporters, but they cannot discriminate against journalists and organizations based on financial considerations and political preferences. Government can restrict access based on safety concerns. Where Trump went wrong with Acosta was his failure to establish how Acosta’s behavior was actually an attack on White House staff or a clear violation of established rules of conduct for White House correspondents. If refusing to hand over a microphone qualifies as misconduct, it must be explicitly stated and the President must explicitly ask the journalist to hand over the microphone. Technicalities aside, Trump nor the White House correspondents present at the press briefing in questions have a constructive working relationship, because neither side respects the other. More importantly, no one is willing to simply ignore offensive remarks and forge ahead with a constructive exchange.
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