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EDITORIAL: White House extends its war on free press

York Dispatch Editorial Board

President Trump does not like to be challenged.

We can hardly blame him. His unseemly blend of braggadocio, narcissism and deceitfulness lends itself to embarrassment and discomfort when confronted by things like facts.

As a result:

  • His aides do cartwheels attempting to quickly realign policies with presidential Twitter declarations that are as unpredictable as they are untethered to reality.
  • Administration officials up to and including Cabinet-level secretaries are warned not to bring up issues that do not comport with Trump’s egocentric view of the world.
  • And journalists, whose role it is to hold policy-makers to account by questioning their positions and examining their agendas, are belittled and demeaned in a campaign to discredit them as “enemies of the people.”

Indeed, a regular part of the carny act that passes for Trump’s campaign rallies sees the president berate and slander reporters covering the event. The journalists are conveniently penned together to maximize their visibility, the better to provide a target for the crowd’s Trump-fueled hostility.

Brazen acts from a president who doesn’t have the spine to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner.

But Trump’s hostilities against the media entered a dangerous new phase last week when the administration summarily revoked the press passes of a majority of the White House press corps. Trump has toyed with such threats before but they have now come to pass.

FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2018 file photo, President Donald Trump watches as a White House aide reaches to take away a microphone from CNN journalist Jim Acosta during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. CNN is suing the Trump administration, demanding that Acosta’s press credentials to cover the White House be returned. The administration revoked them last week following President Trump’s contentious news conference, where Acosta refused to give up a microphone when the president said he didn’t want to hear anything more from him. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Under the arbitrary new rules, in order to qualify for the highest level of a press access — known as a “hard pass” — journalists have to prove they were in the White House for at least 90 of the previous 180 days.

This is a laughable standard, given that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders shows up about as often as Punxsutawney Phil in the briefing room these days. The once-daily updates have declined to about once a month (and are sometimes over in as little as 15 minutes).

This means fewer opportunities for the nation’s leading news organizations to hear directly from — and question — the administration.

The new restrictions will further erode the free press’s ability to cover a White House that has been evasive, opaque, inconsistent and misleading on any number of issues.

It’s hard not to see the policy as the president moving to exert more control over the press corps following his petulant response to CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s questioning during a press event last November. Acosta’s “hard pass” was revoked that very day but the White House was forced to reinstate it after CNN went to court.

The system provides temporary passes to reporters as “exceptions” to its 90-day policy, giving the White House de facto power to pull any reporter’s press credentials at will.

The idea of an administration choosing its own reporters is uncomfortably close to the kind of state media foisted upon citizens in nations like China and Russia.

In truth, President Trump already enjoys this type of fawning, uncritical coverage courtesy of Fox News. His regular shilling for the network’s programming through his Twitter feed is at once a reflection of this favoritism and embarrassingly beneath the office he is supposed to hold.

But it seems the president isn’t content with having what amounts to his own public-relations network. Having long disparaged mainstream journalists, he now seeks to limit their access in hopes of diluting their coverage.

The joke, as ever, is on him. As The New York Times demonstrated anew last week in detailing the president’s monumental financial failures over a 10-year period, quality journalism does not require access.

Solid reporters will dig deep, work sources, gather information, connect dots and provide context on the president and his administration from within the White House or without.

The silly new press corps policy does not dissuade clear-eyed and critical reporting. It does, however, demonstrate yet again that, between the press corps and the administration it seeks to cover, it is the latter whose access to the White House is the real cause for concern.