The right response to Donald Trump? A media blackout
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s ban of Washington Post journalists has left other news outlets with a stark choice: your ratings or your responsibility as journalists in a free society?
Trump’s announcement that he is barring Post journalists from his events follows similar bans he put on reporters from Politico, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Foreign Policy, Fusion, Univision, Mother Jones, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Des Moines Register and the Daily Beast. Trump goons have been known to kick out undesirable reporters at Trump events.
For those journalists and media executives who still don’t share the view of Post Executive Editor Martin Baron that Trump’s action “is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press,” it won’t be long before Trump comes for you, too.
Earlier this year, Trump said he would “open up” libel laws — in other words, dispense with the First Amendment — to make it easier for him to sue news outlets. He has suggested that, if president, he would use antitrust laws to harass Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post. And longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone has proposed that a President Trump seek retribution against CNN: “Turn off their FCC license.”
This goes beyond even Nixonian hostility. Before Trump events, all journalists — blacklisted or not — must apply for permission to attend. They are then notified if their applications have been approved.
But there is, happily, a just and appropriate response to Trump’s blacklist: a Trump blackout.
I don’t mean an outright ban of Trump coverage. That would be shirking our civic responsibility. But I suggest an end to the uncritical, free publicity that propelled him to the GOP nomination:
— No more live, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies and events; this sort of “coverage,” particularly by cable news outlets, has been a huge in-kind contribution to Trump.
— No more Trump call-ins to TV shows; this enables him to plant falsehoods with little risk of follow-up.
— Rigorous use of real-time fact-checking, pointing out Trump’s falsehoods in the stories in which they’re reported. That’s not injecting opinion — it’s stating fact.
Beyond that, news organizations should demand that the Republican National Committee, at next month’s convention, reinstate and credential all media outlets that Trump has banned. Does the RNC want to join Trump in opposing a free press?
Politicians have long tried to freeze out critical reporters and news organizations by refusing to return phone calls or denying them questions at news conferences; I got that treatment covering George W. Bush’s White House. But this is fundamentally different: If Trump were to behave this way in office, he could choose which journalists and outlets would be admitted to the White House briefing room, participate in the press pool or join presidential events.
A push-back against Trump’s authoritarian actions could work, because Trump relies almost entirely on free media attention. He lacks a traditional campaign apparatus with the ability to target and mobilize voters with advertising and field organizing.
Trump won the nomination using what the British call the “dead cat” tactic: Throw a dead cat on the table, and that’s what people will talk about. Trump kept hurling cats, thereby staying a step ahead of the media watchdogs.
In a report out Monday, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center found that eight top news outlets gave Trump the equivalent of $55 million of free advertising last year, and about two-thirds of Trump coverage was positive. Taking the news media as a whole, the center said the claim that Trump’s media coverage was worth $2 billion in ads “might well be correct.”
Shorenstein’s Thomas Patterson suggests a “corrective” response by the media to Trump’s blacklist. “Too many journalists are hung up on the old balance of ‘he said, she said’ and are silent about putting their finger on the scale and saying which viewpoint has the larger weight” of truth, he told me. “One would hope that would change.”
That has begun to change in the past month. The focus has shifted from Trump’s dead cats to serious probing of Trump’s past, falsehoods and racial politics. Nobody has done this better than my colleagues at the Post — which is the real reason for Trump’s blacklisting.
Covering Trump will be more difficult if Post reporters are denied seats on the Trump press charter and news conferences and access to Trump rallies. But their coverage will be as vigorous as before. The question is whether other news organizations will recognize that Trump’s ban is a call to conscience for all who believe in a free press.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group