A couple of weeks ago in my national government class, Dr. Mel Hailey asked me what I thought about the situation between Jim Acosta and Donald Trump.
On Nov. 7, a day after the midterm elections, Acosta was questioning Trump during a press conference about the migrant caravan approaching the border. Trump, who never answered the question, told Acosta to let him lead the country and cut him off in the middle of his next question. When Acosta asked about the Russian investigation, Trump again cut off Acosta, claiming the investigation was a hoax.
In addition to the unprofessional exchange of words, Acosta was accused by Sarah Sanders to have assaulted an intern when he was asked to give up the microphone. Trump ended the dialogue telling Acosta CNN should be ashamed to have him as a reporter, and called him “rude” and “terrible.”
My answer to Hailey’s question was weak, starting with, “Well, I’m biased.” The class was amused, as was I, that I had easily walked myself into that one.
At first, I was infuriated that the White House would strip Acosta of his press pass, especially because he had been the CNN correspondent for five years. I didn’t really know who Acosta was, but journalists stick up for journalists, so naturally I believed Trump was in the wrong.
After leaving class, I did more research and started questioning whether or not it was right for me to side with Acosta. Fox News, typically considered an enemy of CNN, did, so shouldn’t I?
CNN and Acosta, at the time, were suing the president for violation of the First and Fifth Amendments, freedom of the press and right to due process (fair treatment through the judicial system), respectively. The lawsuit was dropped after Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, ordered the White House to restore the press pass. Kelly didn’t rule on the First Amendment question, but said the revocation of the pass was a violation of Acosta’s “right to a fair and transparent process.”
Though I don’t think either side acted professionally, Acosta taking to Twitter quickly to complain, and Trump throwing a fit by barring Acosta, I don’t think CNN had any chance of winning their case.
The First Amendment does guarantee freedom of the press, but it doesn’t guarantee access to the White House (or other federal properties). Access to the White House is a privilege, not a right.
Presidents, because of the First Amendment, cannot discriminate against journalists just because of the way their publication reports. Though it seems Trump revoked Acosta’s press credentials because of the nature of his questions (despite Sarah Sanders’ response to the lawsuit), because he did not bar CNN as a whole, he did not act unconstitutionally.
It’s interesting to me, the pattern of the relationship between the press and the White House since the Zenger case in 1734. John Zenger started printing the New York Weekly Journal, voicing critical opinions of the governor, William Cosby. Zenger was arrested after being accused of libel by Cosby, but it was decided that the truth is a defense against libel.
“The Zenger case proved that men in high power disliked liberty of the press,” said Leonard Levy in his book, The Emergence of a Free Press.
The same is, and has been, true since 1798 when John Adams signed the Sedition Acts into law. This permitted the prosecution of individuals who printed what the government deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government. Fourteen journalists were prosecuted under the act.
John F. Kennedy restricted media access in 1961 and 1962, justifying it as “national security.” His restriction continued through the Bay of Pigs invasion, despite widespread criticism.
After the Washington Post broke the Watergate story, Nixon barred them from covering any White House events except press conferences.
As he said to his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, “I want it clearly understood that from now on, ever, no reporter from The Washington Post is ever to be in the White House. Is that clear? No church service, nothing that Mrs. Nixon does…and no photographers either… Now that is a total order, and if necessary I’ll fire you, do you understand?”
And now, it’s true for the Trump administration, as Trump allegedly told Lesley Stahl, a 60 Minutes correspondent, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
I’ve been an advocate for CNN and their reporters, and applaud them regularly for continuing to do their job despite constant, unprofessional criticism from the president. I read my news from many sources and wouldn’t regard them as “fake,” as many do. CNN isn’t alone in their press credential revocation, but they do stand as the only news organization to bring a lawsuit because of it.
Since taking office in 2016, Trump has barred the Huffington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, the Daily Beast, the Des Moines Register, the New Hampshire Union Leader and more- none of whom threatened a lawsuit.
CNN’s decision to sue the president is a step in the wrong direction. I have previously applauded them for professionalism despite lack of reciprocation from the administration. But a lawsuit isn’t an effort to advance fair treatment of journalists, it’s an attempt by CNN to gain the center of attention by stooping to the same low-level maturity that Trump had during the press conference.
The only good a lawsuit brings is new precedents for future White House coverage and relationship between the press and the president.
If CNN strives to improve the hostile White House environment, they must continue to write the story, not be the story.