Breaking with Tradition, President Trump Offers Journalists Rare Opportunity
Photo by Ryan J. Reilly
At first glance, it seemed to be a terrible weekend for mainstream American journalists at some of the country’s most influential media outlets. On Friday, nine U.S. outlets were barred from an informal gathering known in media parlance as a gaggle. Then, over the weekend, President Trump announced that he would be the first president since Ronald Reagan — who was recovering from an assassination attempt when he declined — to skip the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, affectionately and colloquially known as “Nerd Prom.”
The former was denounced by Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon in a statement. “The U.S. should be promoting press freedom and access to information,” he said. As for the dinner, which is scheduled for April 29th this year, WHCA President Jeff Mason said it “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.” On Monday morning, in an appearance on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe,” Mason also said that other officials of the Trump Administration would likely be invited to attend and that if Trump changed his mind, he would still be welcome.
But both actions are clear indications that the hostile relationship between the Trump White House and mainstream news media is not likely to get better anytime soon. Even before Trump was elected, he began circumventing the traditions of the relationship between the presidency and the press by using Twitter as the means by which he appears to deliver news directly to his many millions of followers instead of using the traditional filters that are reserved for the highest elected office in our country. The White House Correspondents’ Association is an institution which in many ways represents its own version of this tradition — one that is in fact predicated on access to the White House that it has been denied (and consequently, not for the first time).
It must also be said that the dinner, which raises money for scholarships, also reflects the uniformity of most of American newsrooms. That means that the White House press corps are often populated by insiders. Like many other actions President Trump has made during his first month in office, he is making good on his promise to shift power from establishment insiders by giving access to conservative journalists and outlets instead.
At Change.org, we believe that no one is powerless to make positive change. And there can be power in being relegated to outsider status, perhaps especially so in this situation for the WHCA. If President Trump will be absent at the dinner, that provides an opportunity for the WHCA to take any number of actions during its dinner and leverage its platform for continued social change including:
- Planning for the potential for future or ongoing changes in White House communications with influential media outlets
- Highlighting the need for emphasizing the protections under the First Amendment for a free press in our democracy, including a call to drop charges against the last of the seven journalists arrested for doing their jobs while covering Inauguration Day protests
- Funding and lifting up the importance of a diversity of class, geographical, racial and gender representation in media as a true priority
- Expanding membership of the organization to media ally organizations committed to helping keep the White House accountable per practices, principles of coverage and access to the Administration.
Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed that the dinner provided an opportunity to highlight journalists around the world who are doing their jobs in the face of extreme adversities. “There has been one bright spot in the expansion of freedom of information laws around the world,” Radsch said. “But there has also been an expansion of protest laws in the United States. There needs to be sufficient guarantees to let journalists do their jobs and increased protections for journalists covering protests. Whether there’s a gap in law or implementation is unclear, it’s just something to be aware of and flag for journalists.”
While it seems, from the outside, like the possibilities are endless, it’s always easy for people outside of the profession to tell journalists what they should do. Before I came to Change.org, I was a proud newspaper reporter for more than a decade in California, Washington and Texas. Several years ago, I often found myself covering Tea Party rallies in Central Texas at the Texas State Capitol.
The most important thing I learned during my time as a reporter, especially at those rallies, where I was obviously not an insider and stood out to many in the crowd as part of the “liberal elite media” was that my job was not to agree or disagree with the sentiments of the crowd. My job was to bear witness to a movement that galvanized a large number of people in our society who wanted things to change and felt that their voices were never heard. It is possible that President Trump will continue to alter the relationship of the press to the White House. But in continuing to break tradition, he will also empower journalists and those of us who rely on their critical work to keep us informed and to work harder to find the truth.