Journalists play better offense than defense. Give them the ball, and they’ll sleuth out the hidden crumbs of information, filling the scoreboard with touchdowns. Assign them to a dangerous story, and they’ll exhibit the bravery associated with U.S. Marines. Ask them to work late, and they’ll labor all night and file copy at dawn, rat-eyed from exhaustion yet happy and ready for the next story.
But criticize them and ask them to justify what they do and how they do it? They go all go all whiny and preachy, wrap themselves in the First Amendment and proclaim that they’re essential to democracy. I won’t dispute that journalists are crucial to a free society, but just because something is true doesn’t make it persuasive. The chords that aggrieved journalists strike make them sound as entitled as tenured professors. This behavior was on display last Friday after President Donald Trump disparaged the press at CPAC and on Twitter. Later that day, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, amplified the CPAC insult by excluding CNN, Politico, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and others from an off-camera briefing.
Almost immediately, the press protests went off like a battalion of popguns. “Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest,” said New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “This is an undemocratic path that the administration is traveling,” chimed Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron. Others in the press scrum called for retaliation. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski demanded that the press boycott the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner “until the White House’s abhorrent behavior towards members of the press stops.” Her Morning Joe co-host, Joe Scarborough, likewise insisted, “All news organizations must refuse to attend briefings where major outlets are excluded because of critical coverage.”
On and on it went. Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse tweeted that White House reporters should “show some solidarity (and spine) & boycott briefings if Trump Admin excludes certain media.” Writer Simon Schama tweeted for a boycott of “the tinpot dictator’s briefings.” Public radio host Maria Hinojosa (Latino USA) reprised Jay Rosen’s recent idea that the press protest the administration’s behavior by sending interns to White House briefings instead of credentialed reporters. The Washington Post adopted a dreadfully overwrought masthead slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” for its online edition and the New York Times produced a sanctimonious “truth is hard” commercial, which aired during the Oscars. By Sunday morning, Brian Stelter’s guests on Reliable Sources had adopted the wounded theme, which was almost enough to cause me to start rooting against the home team and throw in with Trump.
I understand the press corps’ fury, but does the reaction make sense? As excluded New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush tweeted, there was a deliberate method to Spicer’s madness. It allowed the press secretary to avoid on-camera goofs; it got the press to “whine”; it sowed internal strife among reporters; and it prevented Trump—not Spicer’s biggest fan—from watching his performance. As a piece of lion-taming, the Spicer move was a great success. The lions may still be roaring, but he’s cracking the whip.
There’s nothing Trump and Spicer would love more than a press walkout from gaggles, press briefings, press conferences and assemblies like the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Boycotts would change the subject from Trump and Spicer’s original insults to the bruised egos of the boycotters—and really, how much sympathy should we expect the masses to have for the gang that brings them reams of bad news every morning? Besides, a boycott would be doomed. To be effective, a boycott must enlist almost everybody. Good luck with that. As candidates for adopting a one-for-all ethos, journalists must rank last. The only organizational principle most of them understand is competition.
For the sake of argument, imagine journalists pulling off a principled boycott after Spicer repeats his Friday stunt. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it—we’re halfway there. The Associated Press and Time boycotted the Friday briefing when they learned of the limitations he had placed on participation. Bloomberg, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets have already vowed to shun future closed briefings. But as “principled” reporters peel off to paint protest placards, won’t Spicer merely tilt the briefings toward Trump-friendly media like Breitbart and One America News Network? Remember, Breitbart and OANN’s reporters attended Spicer’s controversial briefing, and they’ll never boycott. Spicer and Trump have already demonstrated a preference for calling on friendly media and will happily shovel interesting news to the pro-Trump outlets who attend. This will create an incentive for news organizations to hold their noses and ditch the boycott. Cozying up to power—writing “beat sweeteners” to gain access and publishing an administration’s planted leaks—has made more than one career in Washington. A boycott will only make the pro-Trump media stronger.
What would I have the press do? Words of protest and pushback, of which we’ve seen plenty, can’t hurt. But the best response, and one that wouldn’t require much in the way of press corps solidarity, would be to make Spicer answer the exiled questions. If, say, Spicer deletes Thrush from another briefing, Thrush can distribute his questions to the invited reporters. When Spicer calls on one, the reporter can say, “Glenn Thrush of the New York Times, who couldn’t be here today, has this question …” And then read it. A couple of rounds of “Thrush questions” and questions from other exiled reporters would not constitute an “I am Spartacus” moment, but it would convey that Spicer can evade news organizations but not their questions. If he can’t stop the reporters’ questions, what’s the point of exiling them?
Reporters have become pawns in Trump’s political strategy. In recent weeks, he’s trotted them out for sacrifice whenever the seeping wound of Russia news gets too moist for him, something NBC News’ Chuck Todd explained Sunday. Instead of taking it personally, I want journalists to take it professionally and continue to report like hell. A great story is always the best revenge.