Tracking Trump-era assault on press norms

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Every few days, Donald Trump issues a new threat against the press.

Some are minor–essentially, name calling and common complaints about coverage–while others are harder to dismiss. The fear among some press freedom experts is that even small incidents can erode the media’s power to do its job, and create a trickle-down effect in which Trump’s words embolden others at the state and local levels.

The political press in the US operates, for the most part, under well-established norms, rather than legal rules. In an interview about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, Harvard professor Steve Levitsky told The New York Times that democratic breakdown more often stems from leaders transgressing norms, rather than from breaking rules. “The underlying informal norms are essential,” he said, adding, “There aren’t that many cases in the world where established democracies have broken down. But where they have, you will see these sort of informal guardrails come down, and intense polarization.”

CJR compiled a list of instances when norms that protect press freedom in the US have been pushed, and, in some cases, upended entirely under Trump.

June 19

Reporters barred from attending campaign events in the Georgia 6th

Incident
On the eve of a closely watched special election, a reporter from The Washington Free Beacon was not allowed to cover an event for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff. Meanwhile, a reporter for ThinkProgress said she was blocked from attending events held by the campaign of GOP candidate Karen Handel.

Scale of normalcy
Several reporters from other outlets spoke out in defense of those barred from doing their jobs. It’s not unusual for campaigns to have testy relationships with media outlets perceived to approach issues from the opposing side of the political spectrum, but banning reporters continues a disturbing trend.

 

June 13

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Reporters are told they can no longer film impromptu interviews with senators in the Capitol

Incident
Journalists and several senators responded with outrage after Mike Mastrian, the director of the Senate Radio and Television Gallery, told reporters they had to obtain prior permission before interviewing senators. A spokesman for Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby later released a statement saying, “While the Rules Committee is reviewing the rules, reporters should continue to operate as they were operating yesterday.”

Scale of normalcy
Shelby suggested that the restrictions would only be enforcing existing rules, but the idea of curtailing access as Republican senators drafted a health care bill in secret led to calls of obfuscation. As of now, nothing has changed, but it’s a subject that bears watching.

 

June 6

The Knight First Amendment Institute requests Trump unblock users from his Twitter account on First Amendment grounds

Incident
The Knight First Amendment Institute wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to unblock Twitter users from his account. “Blocking users from your Twitter account violates the First Amendment. When the government makes a space available to the public at large for the purpose of expressive activity, it creates a public forum from which is may not constitutionally exclude individuals on the basis of viewpoint,” wrote Jameel Jaffer, Katie Fallow, and Alex Abdo.

Scale of normalcy
Obama was the first president to use Twitter. The stated policy of the Obama White House was that official government accounts would not block followers.

 

June 5

Man breaks into a newsroom and attacks a security guard at Q13FOX in Seattle

Incident
Nicholas Hella was arrested by Seattle police after he allegedly punched a security guard in the face, tackled him, and tried to choke him. Hella then allegedly broke into the newsroom, where staff quickly evacuated. Police found Hella in possession of a knife and wire strippers.

Scale of normalcy
It’s unclear what motivated this attack and break-in. Hella told police that he was looking for a blonde female wearing a blue sweatshirt.

 

May 29

Kentucky newspaper has windows shattered and suspected bullet damage

Incident
Three exterior windows at the office of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky were shattered and two others were damaged late Sunday morning. Police, who are investigating the incident as criminal mischief, said the damage was consistent with small-caliber gunfire. There were no injuries.

Scale of normalcy
It is unclear what motivated this attack. Reporters Without Borders is tracking the incident.

 

May 27

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin name-calls a reporter investigating him

Incident
After respected Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Tom Loftus wrote a story about Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin that resulted in an ethics complaint, Bevin called Loftus a “sick man” and a “peeping Tom” on Twitter.

Scale of normalcy
Personally targeting reporters in an attempt to undermine their reporting is something that Trump has done repeatedly since he became a presidential candidate. This incident is in line with an uptick in hostility toward journalists in recent months.

 

May 26

Texas Governor Greg Abbott jokes about shooting reporters

Incident
After signing a gun bill that reduces the cost to get a licence to carry a handgun,  Governor Greg Abbott tested out a few guns at a shooting range. He then held up his bullet-riddled target sheet and joked, “I’m gonna carry this around in case I see any reporters.”

Scale of normalcy
“The fact that the Governor of Texas made a joke about shooting reporters just days after a journalist was physically assaulted by a Montana politician is truly alarming, as we continue to see a causal link between hostile remarks and incidents of intimidation and physical force,” says Margaux Ewen of Reporters Without Borders.

 

May 25

Trump does not hold a press conference during foreign trip

Incident
During a nine-day trip to Europe and the Middle East, Trump delayed readouts, kept reporters at a distance, and did not hold news conferences, allowing him to avoid having to answer to controversies at home, reports Politico.

Scale of normalcy
George W. Bush never went through a foreign trip without holding a presidential news conference, according to his former press secretary Ari Fleischer. Barack Obama usually held press conferences at major summits, and often took questions from the media after bilateral meetings, said his former spokesperson Tommy Vietor. “If you don’t give the press access to the president or to senior staff who can readout his meetings, you’re allowing other countries to write the stories and spin their message,” he said.

 

May 24

Guardian reporter is body-slammed by the GOP candidate in the Montana House race

Incident
The Guardian US reporter Ben Jacobs, along with witnesses, say Montana GOP candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed and punched Jacobs after the reporter asked a question about health care while Gianforte was preparing for an interview with a Fox News TV crew. The impact reportedly broke Jacobs’s glasses and sent him to the hospital for x-rays. Gianforte has been charged with assault.

UPDATE: Gianforte issued a formal apology and donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists as part of a civil settlement with Jacobs.

Scale of normalcy
A politician physically attacking a journalist for asking a question is illegal, unacceptable, and extremely unusual. There are fears that Trump’s negative rhetoric about the press has emboldened politicians at the state and local levels to target journalists.

 

May 21

Rex Tillerson ditches press pool—Part 3

Incident
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed the press in Saudi Arabia without notifying or inviting the US media.

Scale of normalcy
This is the third time Tillerson, who describes himself as “not a big media press access person,” has failed to invite the customary press pool along to an important diplomatic event. Even though the State Department later apologized, it’s a concerning trend.

 

May 16

Trump told FBI Director James Comey he should imprison journalists who publish leaks

Incident
The New York Times reports that in a February meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told then-FBI Director James Comey that “he should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.”

Scale of normalcy
This threat is “unprecedented,” according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Previous administrations prosecuted officials for leaking, but not news outlets for publishing those leaks.

 

May 16

Trump rolls out the red carpet for the world’s worst jailers of journalists

Incident
Trump met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has presided over an aggressive crackdown on the country’s media. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 81 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey and more than 100 news outlets have been shuttered. Trump has also met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, whose country holds 25 journalists behind bars, and President Xi Jinping of China, where 38 journalists are imprisoned. “Trump’s embrace of the world’s leading press freedom violators is serving to normalize media repression,” reports CPJ’s Simon. “The damage to the global press freedom movement is hard to overstate.”

Scale of normalcy
President Obama did not speak out about press freedom in Turkey after its 2010 media crackdown, says Simon, although then-US Ambassador Frank Ricciardone was outspoken, as was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

 

May 12

Trump threatens to cancel White House press briefings

Incident
Donald J. Trump‏ @realDonaldTrump May 12:

Scale of normalcy
Regular press briefings by a White House spokesperson have been the norm since the 1880s. Some presidents (Harding, Hoover) have bent the tradition by only accepting questions in writing, or in advance. Cancelling press briefings altogether would be a new and extreme development.

 

May 10

Russian press allowed into a meeting that was closed to the White House press

Incident
White House reporters were banned from a closed meeting between Trump and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Official government photographers for Russia and the US were allowed. Later, a state-controlled Russian news agency published photos of the meeting.

Scale of normalcy
The Obama administration was criticized for holding closed press meetings, only to later share photos shot by the official White House photographer. “In 2013, the White House Correspondents’ Association said that practice amounted to establishing ‘the White House’s own Soviet-style news service,’” Politico reports.

 

May 9

FBI Director James Comey is fired for talking to the press

Incident
“According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Comey was essentially let go for talking to the press,” reports CJR’s Vanessa Gezari. “Comey’s ouster falls perfectly in line with the administration’s broader positions on media control, leaks, and leakers. It also offers more evidence, in case anyone needed it, of Trump’s overweening desire to control the news cycle….Whatever you think of Comey’s choices regarding the Clinton emails, it’s hard not to read Rosenstein’s memo as a screed against transparency, specifically when it comes to sharing information with the press.”

Scale of normalcy
Comey’s firing was unprecedented, but there is widespread skepticism that Comey was fired for the reasons outlined in Rosenstein’s letter. Nevertheless, the substance of the letter serves as a warning to others in the administration who might be tempted to speak publicly.

 

May 9

Reporter arrested in West Virginia for asking questions of Trump officials

Incident
Dan Heyman, a journalist with Public News Service, was arrested in the State Capitol in Charleston after questioning Trump’s health secretary Tom Price about whether domestic violence would be considered a pre-existing condition under the GOP’s new healthcare legislation. Capitol Police arrested Heyman and charged him with a misdemeanor count of willful disruption of state government processes. “A spokesman for the Capitol Police insisted the arrest was not about his questions but his physical actions,” reports The Washington Post.

Scale of normalcy
It is very unusual for a reporter to be arrested for asking questions, however there is no evidence that police arrested the reporter at the behest of White House officials. Media commentators speculate that Trump’s rhetoric about the press has emboldened law enforcement to target journalists.

 

May 6

Trump campaign attempts to broadcast an ad calling out “fake news” on cable news channels

Incident
The Trump campaign committee spent $1.5 million on an ad about Trump’s first 100 days that also featured news anchors from NBC, CNN, ABC, and CBS with the words “Fake News” stamped across their faces. The networks declined to run the ad, leading to accusations of bias from the Trump campaign. The ad ran on Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.

Scale of normalcy
This was an unusual move by the Trump administration, and a deliberate effort to undermine the impact of negative stories by making his supporters question their veracity.

 

May 3

FBI Director James Comey publicly supports prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing leaked information

Incident
During James Comey’s hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee, he said the Department of Justice would not prosecute journalists who court and solicit classified information, but he did support the prosecution of Assange for the same activity. As Elizabeth Goitein at Just Security points out, his reasoning was alarming: “[T]he line Comey seeks to draw is not between leaking classified information and publishing it, but between publishing it for ‘good’ reasons and publishing it for ‘bad’ ones. Those who do the former are ‘journalists,’ while those do the latter are not. And presumably, the Department of Justice gets to say which is which—at least when it comes to bringing a prosecution.”

Scale of normalcy
No one has been prosecuted for publishing classified information obtained through a leak, but this isn’t the first time a government official has suggested they should be. In 2010, then-Senator Joe Lieberman advocated for prosecuting Wikileaks, and The New York Times for publishing leaked cables.

 

May 2

Alaska Dispatch News reporter is allegedly slapped by a state senator

Incident
Reporter Nathaniel Herz told police that Alaska GOP state senator David Wilson slapped him after he asked the senator a question inside the Alaska Capitol. The police are investigating the matter. An audio recording of the encounter can be heard here.

Scale of normalcy
A politician physically attacking a journalist for asking a question is illegal, unacceptable, and extremely unusual. There are fears that Trump’s negative rhetoric about the press has emboldened politicians at the state and local levels to target journalists.

 

April 20

The Justice Department prepares charges to seek the arrest of Julian Assange

Incident
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a press conference in El Paso, Texas, that arresting Assange is a priority, adding, “We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.” The same day, CNN reported that charges have been prepared to seek the arrest of Assange.

Scale of normalcy
See above.

 

April 14

CIA Director Mike Pompeo defines Wikileaks as a non-state hostile intelligence service

Incident
During a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said: “It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: A non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” Pompeo said. Assange points out to The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill that intelligence services gather information, while news outlets publish it, putting Wikileaks in the latter category.

Scale of normalcy
See above.

 

April 12

Rex Tillerson ditches press pool—Part 2

Incident
During a visit to Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not take his press pool along to an unscheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Scale of normalcy
Tillerson has previously expressed contempt for press norms, telling the Independent Journal Review, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”

 

March 30

Trump threatens to open up libel laws (again)

Incident
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump:

Scale of normalcy
Current libel laws as they relate to the press have been in place since the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. The president doesn’t have the authority to change libel laws. Any change would require the Supreme Court to overrule that landmark decision, or a constitutional amendment.

 

March 20

Trump tweets about cracking down on leaks

Incident
Donald J. Trump‏ @realDonaldTrump:

Scale of normalcy
Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said targeting leakers is a priority. The Obama administration already prosecuted more government leakers than any administration in history, bringing seven cases under the Espionage Act. Before Obama took office, only three people had been indicted under the Espionage Act.

 

March 15

Rex Tillerson ditches press pool—Part 1

Incident
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took just a single reporter—from a conservative media outlet—along with him on his first trip to Asia. As MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said of the decision: “The State Department is the beacon of press freedom around the world. The message now to China in particular when he gets to Beijing is that press freedom doesn’t matter. Up until now, secretaries of state have made it a key demand that our press corps gets into meetings…that there be access for the media…. A key component of foreign policy is being undercut by this.” [via Politico]

Scale of normalcy
Previous Secretaries of State traveled with a press pool. In response to Tillerson’s decision, a number of news outlets wrote to the State Department expressing concern about the move.

 

February 24

Trump administration bars key mainstream news outlets from a press gaggle at the White House

Incident
Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds an informal, off-camera press briefing at the White House, barring outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, Politico, and the LA Times from attending.

Scale of normalcy
At one point, the Obama administration adopted a strategy of treating Fox News as the opposition and attempted to restrict its access to press briefings. After protest from the rest of the press pool, it never happened.

 

February 18

Trump rails against media during rally in Florida

Incident
During a campaign-style rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump ran down the media to his supporters, saying: “I want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media, which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them—they make them up in many cases. They just don’t want to report the truth….They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda.”

Scale of normalcy
This is part of a continual effort by the Trump administration to undermine the impact of negative stories by questioning their veracity and the integrity of the media in general.

 

February 17

Trump calls media “the enemy of the American people”

Incident
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump

Scale of normalcy
Unprecedented. This phrase is used by dictators to stifle dissent. “It’s never before been uttered by the leader of the free world,” according to The Washington Post.

 

January 22

“Alternative facts”

Incident
During a Meet the Press interview, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway uses the phrase “alternative facts” to defend Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about crowd numbers at Trump’s inauguration.

Scale of normalcy
The claim was part of a continual effort by the Trump administration to undermine the impact of negative stories by questioning their veracity.

 

January 21

Press Secretary Sean Spicer shakes up White House press briefings

Incident
Press Secretary Sean Spicer used the first White House press briefing to harangue reporters about their coverage and assert false claims about Trump’s crowd size. He refused to take questions from reporters. In subsequent briefings, Spicer has broken from the convention of giving the first question to the Associated Press; instead he regularly takes questions from non-mainstream journalists, including a number of right-leaning outlets. He also introduced to the briefing room “Skype seats,” which allow four reporters from outside Washington to ask questions via Skype.

Scale of normalcy
Not all changes to protocol are for the worse. Spicer was praised for introducing Skype seats—although the consensus seems to be that they haven’t been as worthwhile as anticipated.

 

January 15

Trump threatens to move White House press corps out of the White House

Incident
The Trump administration floated the idea of relocating reporters out of the West Wing and into a separate building close to the White House. The administration later scrapped the idea.

Scale of normalcy
Journalists have had their own office in the West Wing since 1902. Moving them to another location would “uproot decades of protocol,” but it’s not unprecedented. Eisenhower also debated keeping reporters in the White House, and Nixon considered forgoing a press secretary.

 

January 11

In his first press conference after the election, Trump attacks media and refuses to take questions from CNN

Incident
Trump held his first press conference following the election on January 11, using it to attack the media. He called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage,” and refused to take questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta, calling CNN “fake news.”

Scale of normalcy
No president since Jimmy Carter in 1976 waited so long after the election to hold a press conference. Most did it within the first three days, according to CNN.

 

December 10

Trump begins using the phrase “FAKE NEWS” on Twitter

Incident
Trump begins using the phrase “FAKE NEWS” on Twitter to describe media reports he doesn’t like. From the election until the 100-day mark, Trump used the word “fake” to describe the media in 52 tweets. “Fake” was the fifth-most common word Trump tweeted in that time. Those tweets have been cumulatively liked 81 millions times, and retweeted 18 million times.

Scale of normalcy
This is an ongoing strategy by the Trump administration to undermine the impact of negative stories by questioning their veracity. Past presidents, including Grant, McKinley, and Roosevelt all had somewhat antagonistic relationships with the press, but not to the same extent.

 

November 15

Trump ditches the press pool to go to dinner

Incident
At 6:15 pm on November 15, Trump’s press secretary Hope Hicks told journalists there was a “lid” for the night, meaning no travel was expected. Later Trump took his family to dinner at nearby restaurant the 21 Club without notifying the press.

Scale of normalcy
The incident spared an outcry from the journalists, but Trump isn’t the first president to ditch the press. As president-elect in 2008, Barack Obama also ditched his press pool to take his daughters to a water park.

 

November 10

Trump fails to establish a traveling press pool immediately following the election

Incident
The day after the election, Trump did not allow a press pool to travel with him for his meeting with Barack Obama at the White House. Reporters were only able to access the meeting due to the efforts of the White House and the White House Correspondents Association.

Scale of normalcy
The tradition of presidents and presidents-elect traveling with one or more members of the press has continued for decades.


ICYMI: A hidden message in memo justifying Comey’s firing

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.