Journalists were up in arms last Wednesday when the White House banned four U.S. journalists from covering a dinner attended by President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. Reporters from the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters were excluded from covering the dinner. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the press was excluded from the event because of “sensitivities over shouted questions” during previous meetings between the leaders, including questions yelled on the world stage about the congressional testimony of Trump‘s former attorney Michael Cohen.
As one would expect, there was strong push back from American news agencies, which led to Sanders allowing a single reporter into the dinner without asking a single question to either leader. The finger pointing between the Trump White House and the media has been going on ever since.
White House Correspondents’ Association president Olivier Knox objected to the press ban. “This summit provides an opportunity for the American presidency to display its strength by facing vigorous questioning from a free and independent news media, not telegraph weakness by retreating behind arbitrary last-minute restrictions on coverage,” he said in a statement. “We call on the White House to not allow a diminution of the previously agreed-to press complement for the remainder of the summit.”
Who’s right? Who knows?
These standoffs shouldn’t surprise anybody. Friction between the press and government officials is nothing new. Trump didn’t even start it, and it’s not limited to one party or the other. According to an article in the Washington Post by Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey, “past administrations have struggled to balance access for U.S. reporters as presidents have met with authoritarian regimes, including China, that have sought to limit the number of reporters in the room.” According to that article, President Barack Obama barred wire service and reporters during three meetings with China from 2009 to 2011. Even Vice President Joe Biden ushered U.S. reporters out of a meeting with Chinese officials in 2011. The principle is the same no matter which party is involved.
Sometimes, disagreements over public access resemble gang turf wars as government officials and press square off over the first amendment. If it were up the press, nothing would be off limits. If it was up to government officials, news would be self-congratulating propaganda. Ever since a free press was guaranteed by the first amendment as a final check and balance against tyranny, the two sides have been in opposition. In that way, it’s no different than any of the other checks and balances— Congress and the president; the Supreme Court and the other two branches. It just seems that the conflict is getting more and more personal in recent years.
Even at the local level, conflict can happen. This March marks one year since Observer journalists and high school officials squared off during a national student walk-out protest, and local police had to intercede. Usually, in these incidents, both sides get back to work after the dust settles.
Of course, nobody is above the law. Just because a journalist has the right of access, it does not give them the right to be disruptive or harassing at an international dinner. In the same way, government officials can’t physically and verbally assault journalists just because it’s inconvenient that they are covering a protest. The rest is up to the Supreme Court to decide.
The first amendment is the most litigated amendment, and that won’t change any time soon. Luckily, bad behavior by journalists and government officials is the exception, not the rule.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.