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Barbershop: President Trump And The Media


Now we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. There was an awful lot in the news this week, some of which we've already addressed. But we want to spend some time on this - this is the exchange between President Trump and CNN's Jim Acosta that ended with the White House revoking Acosta's press pass.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Just sit down, please. Well, when you report fake news - no. When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.

MARTIN: And it was jarring, but it was just the latest blow in the president's ongoing attack on the American news media. We wanted to talk a bit more about this because the journalists who cover the president are now becoming the story itself, and that raises a lot of questions about just how journalists should go about doing their jobs in this very strange moment. So we've called on three veteran journalists to talk with us about this. Joining us in our studios in Washington, D.C., is Susan Glasser, staff writer at The New Yorker. Welcome back.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan is speaking to us from our studios in New York. Margaret Selvan, welcome back to you.


MARTIN: And Kelly McBride is a senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. That's an organization that studies and provides guidance for the media. She is speaking to us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Kelly McBride, thank you so much as well.

KELLY MCBRIDE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And, you know, yes, I think we know the president frequently clashes with reporters, but this is the first time that we've seen him actually deny people's credentials since he took office. And then also remarkable that following the exchange, the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, shared what I think reasonable people see as an altered video justifying the suspension of Acosta's pass. Now, Susan, you wrote about this in your weekly letter from washington about what a divisive and unusual week this has been. How concerned should we be about all of this, particularly people who are not in the media?

GLASSER: Well, look. I do think it's extremely disturbing on so many levels. Obviously, we have a norm-shattering president. Already one of the norms that he's most consistently railed about is that of respect for the free and independent press. As you know, even before he became president, this was a theme of Trump's What I'm disturbed by is, No. 1, it's by design. This is a political calculation. You saw this actually from the moment that President Trump entered office - actually was in February of 2017 that he first used the term enemy of the people to refer to journalists. Now, of course, I'd like to say to your listeners - we're not the enemy of the people. I lived in Russia for four years. When Stalin sent millions to the gulag, the official sentence that they used to condemn people to the camps was enemy of the people. This is a phrase that President Trump knows full well is resonant with that. And it is contrary to our Constitution, which enshrines protections for journalists. And, you know, that exchange the other day, just quickly, to me, encapsulated, you know, how calculated President Trump's attacks on us are, you know.

MARTIN: To that point, you know, Kelly, you wrote an interesting column about this. And you offered an interesting perspective, which is that, namely, this - given that this is calculated, that Jim Acosta should have responded differently. And that you also say that his own behavior was unprofessional and that this could have been anticipated, and he could have handled this differently. Could you talk a little bit more, as briefly as you can, about why you say that?

MCBRIDE: So historically, the White House press corps has notoriously asked long-winded double-barreled argumentative questions, but that is not the best practice for asking questions. And we teach this all the time to journalists that the best practice for asking questions is to ask a neutral question and ask an open-ended question. And I wish that Jim Acosta had done that because then it would not have opened the door for the president to accuse him of being an enemy of the people, fake news, biased. And what you saw, you saw the president this week being horrific to three other reporters who were doing just that, who were asking neutral, open-ended, Hard-hitting questions. And what happens when you do that is it reveals the true president right? And it doesn't allow him to seize control of the situation in the way that an argumentative question allows him to seize control.

MARTIN: I have to say, though, Margaret, as a former White House correspondent myself, I saw plenty of argumentative, obnoxious, attention-seeking reporters, particularly from conservative media outlets it has to be said. Their credentials have never been pulled.

MCBRIDE: Oh, yeah, never. I mean, and of course he's not going to pull anybody's credentials who is on his side. But - and I'm not suggesting that White House press conferences are anything other than theater, but if they were, we would get better results.

MARTIN: Margaret, what do you have to say about this?

SULLIVAN: Well, I actually wrote a column saying that I thought that CNN should take a very strong stand on this and sue the Trump White House because whether or not we like Jim Acosta's particular style of asking questions - I think that is, you know, something we can talk about, of course - but I think it's beside the point, which is that the president and the White House shouldn't be determining whose reporting they like and don't like because that's a very slippery slope. You know, you start to go down that road and then it's going to be like, well, we liked this story you wrote, so you're in. But we didn't like this story you wrote, and so you're out. And I think there's a really serious First Amendment issue here that should be addressed and addressed in court.

MARTIN: On what grounds? I mean, what is that legal question here that would be taken to court?

SULLIVAN: Well, there's actually case law on this. I don't think I can get too into the weeds on it, but there's a 1977 case that suggests that, you know, that government actors, governments cannot pick and choose who they will allow to have a press pass when there is general access for the press. That doesn't mean that the president or someone else can't decide to have an exclusive interview or give particular information to somebody, but when there is general access, you can't start saying you're in and you're out. And so there's, you know, there's some - there's something to build on here from a legal perspective.

MARTIN: Let me reference something that Kelly brought up earlier. Also on Wednesday, the president called a question from PBS's Yamiche Alcindor racist when she said - correctly in my view - that some white nationalists are thought to be emboldened by the president. And the very next day, the president tangled with another journalist here responding to a question from CNN's Abby Phillips - who also, I will note, happens to be an African-American woman - about the new acting attorney general.


TRUMP: What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.

MARTIN: And he also took shots again at April Ryan from Urban Radio Networks, calling her nasty and a loser. So, Kelly, a lot of people - I mean, listeners who are listening to our conversation, a lot of people have been tweeting and saying things online that the media should walk out, that they should boycott this. And what do you say to that?

MCBRIDE: I wish they would, I really do. I wish that the White House Correspondents Association would band together, not to present a united press, but to present a united defense of the First Amendment. I completely agree with Margaret that the president should not pick and choose who is admitted into the press corps and into the press conferences. And I wish that they would band together when the president refuses to ask a question to then have the next reporter follow up and insist that that question is answered. And also to - I think that they should boycott the press conferences until he allows Jim Acosta to come back into the White House.

MARTIN: But, Margaret, you made the point that that would - that that's not going to happen, so...

SULLIVAN: Well, what worries me about that is that I think when reporters say we're going to walk out, we're going to boycott, We're going to do a blackout, something like that, they're essentially walking away from their core responsibility, which is to inform citizens. So I don't think it's the right action. And, you know, I also think that it then cedes the coverage over to those press people or media figures or media organizations who are most sympathetic to Trump and who would continue to report and be allowed special access. So I think that's counterproductive. There's no good - you know, look, there's no great answer here. And as Susan said so well, this is a situation that's been going on for a while, and this is just the latest chapter in it. And there really isn't a perfect answer. I understand that.

MARTIN: Susan.

GLASSER: You know, I think, in many ways, the debate about boycott or not is beside the point because it's not going to happen. Fox News is not going to boycott Donald Trump's White House press conferences. The context here is really important for people and to understand. There's had been a systematic elimination of the institutions of how the press is enabled to have access to the White House under President Trump. He and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have essentially eliminated the daily briefing which occurred under presidents of both parties for decades. Essentially, even these press conferences are rare moments - increasingly rare moments of presidential spectacle. He just wanted to have a show the day after the election and maybe perhaps change the story. But essentially, the press conference is dead. The daily press briefing is dead. Meaningful, responsive answers to journalists' queries are dead. And that's the context in which...

MARTIN: Well, so, we have a minute left. Susan, you've edited two major and important publications and you're a columnist at a third - some direction here. Fix it.

GLASSER: It's never been more important to bear witness and to not - to insist, as I do, that facts and reporting is not a partisan activity, that being independent and asking tough questions of the president is our job. Whether you like Jim Acosta's style or not is not the issue. The issue is clearly as I can put it is simply that the First Amendment not only enables us but requires us to do the job of asking tough, independent questions to the president. And, you know, each party thinks that you're doing a tough job. It's just the way that journalism is. And don't let people convince you that that's partisan.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. So much more to discuss. And I hope we will talk again. That's Susan Glasser of The New Yorker, Margaret Sullivan, columnist with The Washington Post, Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Thanks to all.

MCBRIDE: Thank you.

GLASSER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.