White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein—Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
February 24, 2017

The Trump administration has stepped up what appears to be an ongoing battle with much of the mainstream media. After the president blasted CNN and the New York Times on Friday for what he called “fake news,” his press secretary excluded those outlets and several others from a briefing at the White House.

In addition to the Times and CNN, reporters from BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Times and Politico were blocked from entering press secretary Sean Spicer’s office, where the briefing was held. Veteran White House journalists said this was an unusual breach of protocol.

Those allowed into the briefing included reporters from several conservative outlets, including Breitbart News—whose former chairman, Steve Bannon, is the president’s senior strategist—as well as the One America Network and The Washington Times.

Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, ABC, CBS and Fox News also attended, but several said later that they would have declined if they had known it would not include the entire press corps. Journalists from Associated Press and Time magazine (which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Inc.) were invited, but refused to attend as a show of solidarity.

Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to former president George W. Bush, said on Twitter that this kind of selective briefing is not uncommon. “Calm down, everyone,” he said. Others were not as sanguine, however, including New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who said in a statement:

“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations.”

A spokesperson for the White House tried to downplay the incident, telling the New York Times that the regular pool reporters were included (those who are selected by the press corps to share information with the others for certain events). “We decided to add a couple of additional people beyond the pool. Nothing more,” she said.

The fact that several of those outside the pool who were invited happened to be from outlets seen as favorable to the administration wasn’t lost on the rest of the media, however. And when Spicer said the administration intended to “push back” against “false narratives and false stories,” some saw an obvious connection between those comments and the exclusion of CNN and the Times.

The blocking of the Times and others also occurred just hours after the president excoriated the mainstream press in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump called the media “dishonest” and said they were purveyors of “fake news,” and mocked the media’s tendency to hide behind the First Amendment.

The president also said last week on Twitter that the New York Times, CNN and other outlets were “the enemy of the American people.” Bannon, who has referred to the press as “the opposition party,” also warned that the administration’s attacks on the media were not likely to soften, but instead would “only get worse.”

The president of the White House Correspondents Association said in a statement that his group would be “protesting strongly” against how the briefing was handled. Jeff Mason encouraged the news organizations that were allowed in to share the information they gathered with others, and said the board would discuss the matter with the White House.

The Wall Street Journal said that if it had known that others were being excluded, it would not have attended the briefing. A Bloomberg reporter said on Twitter that she was allowed in because she was part of the pool, and that the outlet shared an audio recording of the meeting with other news organizations.

“The Wall Street Journal strongly objects to the White House’s decision to bar certain media outlets from today’s gaggle,” the paper said in a statement. “Had we known at the time, we would not have participated and we will not participate in such closed briefings in the future.” CNN said the move was “unacceptable,” while Washington Post editor Marty Baron called it “appalling.”

Although many journalists cheered the decision by Time and the AP to boycott the briefing, others wondered why no one had thought to protest in a similar way when Trump blocked news outlets such as Mother Jones and the Huffington Post from his campaign prior to the election.

Some also warned that the attacks on the press are in part designed to distract reporters from the serious issues confronting the Trump administration, including whether adviser Reince Preibus breached rules by discussing an ongoing investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia with the FBI, and by asking the agency to speak to news outlets about it in order to deny the story.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, told the Times that the move to exclude his site and others from the briefing was clearly “the White House’s apparent attempt to punish news outlets whose coverage it does not like.” BuzzFeed recently published a dossier of allegations (which remain unproven) about Trump’s connections to Russia.

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