January 11, 2017. The day not-my-President-elect Donald Trump had a Hollywood-worthy showdown with the media during his first press conference in five months. The only thing missing was the cheesy soundtrack from a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. We'll give this one to Trump. The losers? CNN, its reporter Jim Acosta and the entire 4th estate. What happens next will determine whether the media survives the Trump era and continues to play a central role in American politics and daily life, or if it limps away a sad broken footnote in the most bizarre, divisive administration in history.
It's definitely time to sound the alarms, as we've entered unchartered territory. The media should be terrified, as its very existence is in grave danger. Trump and the press have raced right past whatever honeymoon normally exists and have stage-dived into the contentious, punitive phase of this dysfunctional relationship. And it's the American public who will suffer. Transparency, accountability and freedom itself are on the verge of extinction. The administration's utter disdain for the press has become the biggest threat to our democracy.
The confrontation with Acosta erupted when the reporter, after Trump accused CNN of being a "fake news" network, attempted to ask a question. He was summarily denigrated and dismissed by Trump who used his bully pulpit to be, well, an obnoxious, petulant, vindictive bully.
Acosta sat frustrated and silenced. And his colleagues got the message: cross the big guy (with at least what he thinks is a slight) and he will berate you and likely have his press secretary threaten to throw you out, as Sean Spicer did to Acosta. It was tough to watch, and a harbinger of future Trump-era pressers. In a matter of seconds, America's free and open press didn't seem so free or open.
The episode with Acosta was just the tip of the iceberg. As retribution for what it deems "unfair" coverage, the administration is considering making drastic, unprecedented changes to standard practice and protocol including ejecting the press from the West Wing; limiting or eliminating daily White House briefings and press conferences; denying credentials; ending the Saturday morning presidential radio address; and placing limitations on the press pool. It's also threatened to expand the nation's libel laws granting Trump greater punitive power against reporters and media outlets critical of him and the administration.
At this extremely critical juncture the media cannot allow itself to be marginalized, hampered and/or restricted. It must exert itself and regain control of the process, not be neutered into submission. The White House is the people's house, and whether he wishes to accept it or not, Trump works for the people. And since 320-million citizens cannot fit into the briefing room, the 49 reporters who represent them there must be free to challenge the president without fear of reprisal, threat of ejection, or being banned.
If one of their own gets "Acosta'd" again, perhaps all 49 White House reporters should get up and leave Trump and Spicer standing alone in the briefing room. I suspect that would make a strong point. And if the administration carries out its threatened changes and severely limits future media access, perhaps it should no longer cover Trump's bombastic tweets. Maybe it should also place a moratorium on appearances by Kellyann Conway and other surrogates who use the generous airtime afforded them to spread the administration's propaganda.
To be sure, Trump needs the media more than it needs him. He's an attention-starved, self-aggrandizing showman, and without the media there is no show. And no one knows this more than Trump himself. Without the media the administration cannot spread its message, promote its agenda or tout its successes. No one's expecting a love affair between the press and the White House. But the American public has a right to know what's going on within the presidency at all times, and the administration should not hinder or obstruct that Constitutionally-protected access.