On Friday, the White House took the unprecedented act of barring The New York Times, CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC and several other news organizations from an off-camera briefing known as a gaggle. Meanwhile, several right-wing news outlets were allowed to attend, including Breitbart, The Washington Times and One America News Network. Just hours earlier, Trump repeatedly attacked the media, describing it as an “enemy of the people.” Then, on Saturday, Donald Trump announced he would not attend this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner. The last president to skip the dinner was Ronald Reagan in 1981. At the time, Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt. We speak to Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at the Trump administration and press freedom. On Friday, the White House took the unprecedented act of barring The New York Times, CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, and several other news organizations from an off-camera briefing known as a gaggle. Meanwhile, several right-wing news outlets were allowed to attend, including Breitbart, The Washington Times and One America News Network. New York Times editor Dean Baquet said, quote, “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties.”
AMY GOODMAN: Washington Post editor Marty Baron described the White House’s decision as “appalling,” saying the Trump administration is on, quote, “an undemocratic path.”
Interestingly, even White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke out against banning news outlets from press briefings — well, that was two months ago. In December, Spicer said, quote, “We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something you can’t ban an entity from. I think that is what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship,” Spicer said in December.
Just hours before The New York Times and other outlets were barred from attending the briefing, President Trump spoke at CPAC — that’s the Conservative Political Action Conference.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none. … There are some great reporters around. They are talented. They’re honest as the day is long. They’re great. But there are some terrible, dishonest people, and they do a tremendous disservice to our country and to our people. A tremendous disservice. They are very dishonest people, and they shouldn’t use sources. They should put the name of the person. You will see stories dry up like you’ve never seen before.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Donald Trump, speaking at CPAC on Friday. Hours later, CNN’s Jake Tapper began his show by responding to Trump’s actions.
JAKE TAPPER: Don’t misunderstand what’s going on with that rhetoric and with today’s action banning various media outlets, including CNN, The New York Times. This White House does not seem to respect the idea of accountability. This White House does not seem to value an independent press. There is a word for that line of thinking. The word is “un-American.”
AMY GOODMAN: CNN’s Jake Tapper Friday. Then, on Saturday, President Trump announced he would not attend this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner. The last president to skip the dinner was Ronald Reagan in 1981, when he was recovering from an assassination attempt.
To talk more about President Trump and press freedom, we’re joined by Robert Mahoney, who is the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Let’s start with, well, President Trump calling the press “the enemy of the people.”
ROBERT MAHONEY: It’s very dangerous. I mean, to vilify the press is to undermine its credibility. The press has a very well-defined role in a democracy, which is to hold officeholders and those with power accountable. Here, I think what we’re seeing is a deliberate attempt to undermine the press so that in the future, when the press does its job and uncovers something that the administration would like to keep quiet, it will be dismissed as “Ah, it’s false news. It’s fake.” It’s very — it’s very troubling that this should be happening so soon into the presidency.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this issue that Trump keeps raising of fake news, really, even the term “fake news” only came into currency toward the end of last year during — toward the end of the electoral campaign, and yet he has now appropriated that term as a description of those who criticize him.
ROBERT MAHONEY: Yeah, and we saw in the campaign that he used this. And the campaign is one thing, but now he has the platform of the presidency, which is very, very powerful. And one of the tactics that candidate Trump used was to stick a description onto someone. We had “crooked Hillary” or “lying Ted.” Now we’ve got “fake news.” So the —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the “failing New York Times.”
ROBERT MAHONEY: And the “failing New York Times.” So, you know, for his supporters and for many people, this will stick. And this, as I said, undermines — it’s a deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility of the independent press.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
DEAN BAQUET: I have to say, I think there is an effort by this administration to minimize the press, to push the —
BRIAN STELTER: “Minimize.”
DEAN BAQUET: Yeah, I think that their goal, it’s just evident, is to make it so — there are a handful of independent institutions whose job it is — and we’re among them — to critique the president, to hold the president accountable. The judiciary is in the same batch. And I think if you look at the pattern of the president’s tweets, they’re actually designed to minimize the institutions who are charged with holding him accountable. And I think that’s dangerous.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Robert?
ROBERT MAHONEY: I think he’s right. It is dangerous. And what we have here is a situation where not only is this bad for the US press, it’s bad for the press generally around the world, because we look to the United States to act as a champion of press freedom and to stand up for journalists when they get in trouble. If the administration is now dismissing journalists and undermining the value of their work, that’s bad news for all those journalists who are physically assaulted elsewhere around the world, not just American journalists now who are being verbally assaulted.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you. Other presidents have had contentious relationships with the press in the past — Richard Nixon, obviously. Bill Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, had his difficulties. What do you see that is qualitatively different, if any, about this particular period of conflict now that we’ve had with Trump?
ROBERT MAHONEY: Well, we’re just four weeks into the presidency, and already we’re having this conversation. There’s a big difference. It took a while for Nixon and the press to really get into a situation where they hated one another. We have — it’s more extreme, I would say, at this point. And Nixon, other presidents, they hold power. It’s natural, and it’s actually healthy, that there is a certain tension between reporters and politicians. If there isn’t that tension, then that means that the press isn’t doing its job. But this is worse than that. We saw the vilification of the press at a — from a public platform on Friday. And then a few hours later came the barring of these news organizations from a briefing. The way that looks is as if the press is being punished if it’s critical and independent.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who also attacked the media during his appearance the day before Trump spoke at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.
STEPHEN BANNON: If you look at, you know, the opposition party and how they portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition and now they’re portraying the administration, it’s always wrong. … The mainstream media or opposition party never caught, is that if you want to see the Trump agenda, it’s very simple. It was all in the speeches. … They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed — adamantly opposed to a economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Steve Bannon, chief strategist, also former head of Breitbart, which was allowed into the gaggle on Friday.
ROBERT MAHONEY: Yeah. I mean, it’s all laid out for you, that it’s painting the media as the opposition. The media is not the opposition. The press is the fourth estate. It has a very clear role to play in any democracy. By calling it the opposition, again, you are inoculating yourself, I believe, against future criticism, for when things start to go wrong and the press is digging and doing its job. You will be able to dismiss it as biased and politically affiliated. This sends a very, very dangerous message, and journalists are right to stand up to this at this point and say, “We won’t accept this. We are not the opposition. We’re doing our jobs.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I can see for these threats — and, of course, Bannon said it’s going to get worse in the future. But this issue of, for instance, excluding some members of the press from what’s essentially a small briefing, clearly, you’re making choices all the time, and groups like The New York Times and CNN and Politico are used to being considered the first ones to be given these briefings. Is there the same kind of criticism about the exclusion from the gaggle that you would have about these threats to the press directly?
ROBERT MAHONEY: Whether that is repeated or not, I don’t know. But you take — you take that. It’s sending a message. These were critical outlets. They weren’t just — they weren’t selected at random, it seemed. And it happened straight after the CPAC criticism. You know, journalists — not every journalist can get into a briefing. It was a pool. It’s a very practical way of sharing information. But everyone that’s involved in covering the White House said this was unprecedented. So I believe that it had a purpose beyond just that Sean Spicer didn’t have enough room in his office.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s interesting about the gaggle, it’s off the record. President Trump attacked reporters for using off-the-record sources, saying they should stop doing this. And yet the gaggle required things to be off the record, and that’s a criticism of the gaggle, that the White House would often use it over the years to put out perhaps a lie, and then you can’t attribute it to anyone. Then you’ve got the White House correspondents’ dinner. The press has made an enormous deal out of that. There are a number of journalists who have not gone to it for years, because it is such — it demonstrates the extremely cozy relationship — Democracy Now! hasn’t gone — between journalists, politicians. They’ll often invite politicians as guests, or A-list celebrities. But now it’s President Trump who won’t go, and this is the first time since the attempted assassination of Reagan, when I believe he called in but he couldn’t actually get there.
ROBERT MAHONEY: Yeah, I mean, look, there — you can criticize the relationship between journalists and those in power as being cozy, and Democracy Now! doesn’t go to this dinner, neither does The New York Times, for that reason. And as I was saying earlier, it’s natural that there is some kind of tension between the press and those in power. But now, Trump could have gone to this, if he had wanted to reach out to the press, but he doesn’t. So, the lines are clearly drawn. This is going to be a very contentious and conflictual kind of relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll see if Alec Baldwin will show up in his stead playing Mr. Trump. Robert Mahoney, we want to thank you for being with us, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
When we come back, the NAACP is calling for a ban of North Carolina. We’ll go to Raleigh to speak with the Reverend — is calling for a boycott of North Carolina. We’ll go to Raleigh to speak with the Reverend Barber. Stay with us.