Freedom of the Press Imperiled by Repeated White House Restrictions and Denigrations

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, the White House prohibited video and audio coverage of daily press briefings, plus photographs of Press Secretary Sean Spicer. While press access has been a recurring issue across several administrations, the degree and frequency of these limits have accelerated significantly during the early months of the Trump presidency.

White House (south side)

On the campaign trail and since he was sworn in, Trump has consistently heaped harsh criticism on the press, and this vitriol is shared among many of his supporters. In a conversation with regional television reporters at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Phoenix over the weekend, one revealed that she was told to return to Mexico (she’s Asian-American) as she walked along the rope line at a Trump rally.

Another said that she’s regularly greeted as a member of the “fake news media” while covering local political events. And I need not remind you that a congressional candidate assaulted a reporter on the eve of his election without consequence.

Feeling physically threatened and verbally abused is now par for the course for “democracy’s detectives.

The move to limit video and audio coverage of press briefings gets to the heart of how Americans consume news. We’re increasingly less likely to read a print newspaper, but still avid consumers of television, and to a lesser extent, radio news.

One of the McCormick Foundation's commitments is the civic development of the next generation of individuals, communities and institutions in Chicago and Illinois, the First Amendment freedom of the press is critical to this enterprise and central to our benefactor’s legacy. Our vision for a healthy democracy in Illinois leverages institutions that are accessible, transparent, responsive, and representative. A vibrant, free press, in its enduring watchdog role, helps make this possible, but it is threatened by events in Washington and closer to home.

Thankfully, a number of our grantees are active on this front, perhaps most prominently the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP). RCFP maintains a hotline for reporters and newsrooms under duress, providing direct support in acknowledgement of massive contractions in the industry. RCFP also files legal briefs in cases involving press freedoms, and engages in policy advocacy at the federal level in support of such reforms as a federal shield law.

We also support the Poynter Institute to provide regional and national trainings for reporters on a number of emerging issues. Poynter led a training last week at the IRE Conference on a new police arrest database, and have another planned this fall in Nashville on covering the Trump Administration.

Closer to home, the Better Government Association is an active user of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, perhaps most prominently in battle with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his use of private email for public business. According to President and CEO Andy Shaw, Illinois has a strong FOIA law, yet its compliance office has a 1-2 year backlog in responding to requests. Moreover, Shaw suggests that FOIA exceptions are often misapplied, and taxpayers wrongly foot the bill for FOIA lawsuits. Each of these problems demand policy solutions and the BGA is leading their development.

The battle between those in power and reporters tasked with holding them accountable is perennial, yet restricted access, physical and verbal threats to reporters, and general denigration of the press undermines this delicate balance and imperils democratic governance. Eternal vigilance is a must, and we’re lucky to have several national and local partners on the front lines. We implore you to join us in defending “democracy’s detectives.”

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