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Judge upholds freedom of the press

Guest Column
Sunday, November 18, 2018

So what?

An aggressive journalist from CNN gets his White House press credentials pulled. What difference does it make?

You may not even watch CNN. But no matter what you watch or what you read, the withdrawal of the White House press credentials Jim Acosta has held since 2013 matters a great deal, as do the insults the president brings down on the profession of journalism as a whole. If everyone reporting the truth is silenced, who will know what is happening in the government? That’s why it’s important that CNN has filed a lawsuit against the White House, and that’s why it’s important that most media outlets have come to Acosta’s defense. So far more than a dozen news outlets — from the Associated Press to USA Today, The Washington Post and Politico — are filing friend-of-thecourt briefs, as is conservative-leaning Fox News, whose president said, “Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized.”

On Friday, Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump nominee, supported CNN’s request for a temporary restraining order, but the matter may be far from over as other hearings may decide the permanent decision in the case, which, of course, can be appealed by either side. Of course, if the White House simply reinstates the press pass and establishes clear rules the matter may disappear. The judge clearly said there needs to be a process for withdrawing a press pass with rules that specify reasons for such a withdrawal. The judge also said what the White House did was capricious and arbitrary.

So just what was Acosta’s misstep?

It appears from the press conference I watched that he simply wanted to ask the President two questions on a day that found Trump especially testy due to his loss of a Republican-held House of Representatives in the mid-term elections. Acosta’s first question regarded the migrant caravan heading toward Tijuana, and the second regarded the Russia investigation.

The President refused to answer either question and apparently someone directed an intern to take Acosta’s microphone from him, something he resisted by saying “I’m not finished ma’m.” The White House then spun the video and event to say Acosta assaulted the intern and his credential was suspended. I saw nothing close to an assault as I watched, yes, on CNN.

I did see the President insult Jim Acosta, who is Hispanic, by saying, “That’s enough! Put down the mic!” Trump went on, “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You should not be working for CNN.”

When NBC’s White House Correspondent Peter Alexander came to Acosta’s defense, telling the President his comments were “unfair,” and that Acosta is “a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us,” the President shot back, “I’m not a big fan of yours either!”

Within a couple of days the President also publicly had insulted three African-American journalists covering the White House, Abby Phillip, April Ryan and Yamiche Alcindor. Phillip, a CNN reporter and former Washington Post journalist, drew Trump’s wrath after she asked whether he hoped Matthew G. Whitaker, Trump’s appointee as acting attorney general, would “rein in” special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Trump’s presidential campaign.

“What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question,” Trump snapped. He didn’t answer the allegedly “stupid” question, but he did pour more contempt on Phillip. “I watch you a lot,” he said. “You ask a lot of stupid questions.”

The incident that has been perhaps most widely reported was the round of insults he hurled at Ryan, when he said, “You talk about someone who’s a loser.” Ryan is a reporter for American Urban Radio Networks and a contributor to CNN. “She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing,” the President said. “She gets publicity and then she gets a pay raise, or she gets a contract with, I think, CNN. But she’s very nasty and she shouldn’t be. You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.”

A few moments later, Alcindor asked Trump about his recent characterization of himself as “a nationalist” and whether that label was “emboldening white nationalists.” Trump interrupted her and responded, “I don’t know why you say that, that is such a racist question.” He repeated that characterization — “racist” — two more times, but never answered her question.

As for Acosta, CNN can find him another slot. He’s already has earned his stripes as an outstanding reporter, and CNN has others qualified to cover the White House. The African-American newswomen can let the insults roll off their backs too, even though the president was way out of line. But what happens next?

It’s worth noting in his recent press tirades, the president has mentioned that he may revoke other press credentials. That’s another reason why the CNN lawsuit is so important and why it’s heartening that journalists have joined together to protect the Fourth Estate. Everyone who understands the value of news as shedding light on what is happening in government should join in that concern.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, whose members work for a range of news organizations, said it “strongly supports” the lawsuit. The association’s  president, Olivier Knox, said revoking access to the White House amounted to a disproportionate reaction to the events. “The President of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him.”

And that’s exactly the point. Whether you think CNN is left leaning, whether you find Acosta’s questions too assertive and whether you even believe the President’s insults leveled at CNN and other mainstream media outlets as “fake news,” surely everyone understands that the media has perhaps the most vital role in its history as it covers this particular presidency.

As Knox noted, “If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials.”

And if President Trump can order one credential withdrawn, it can order more and more. And reporters will become afraid to ask the kind of probing questions we need to understand the workings of this — or any othe rpresidency.

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Kate McCarty is a resident of San Marcos