Trump escalates war on news media

Nancy Benac and Mary Clare Jalonick
Associated Press

Washington — The White House took on the news media on two fronts Friday, with President Donald trump assailing the use of anonymous sources while several news organizations were barred from a press briefing.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump unloaded on the news media for using anonymous sources — just hours after members of his own staff insisted on briefing reporters only on condition their names be concealed.

Unleashing a line of attack that energized an enthusiastic crowd at the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists, Trump said unethical reporters “make up stories and make up sources.”

“They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” he declared. “Let their name be put out there.”

Trump told CPAC that while not all reporters are bad, the “fake news” crowd “doesn’t represent the people. It will never represent the people and we’re going to do something about it.”

Trump didn’t expand on what he had in mind or which news organizations he was talking about. But his broadsides represented an escalation of his running battle against the press, which he has taken to calling “the opposition party.”

The president has chafed at a number of anonymously sourced stories, including numerous reports describing contacts between his campaign advisers and Russian intelligence agents, which the White House has sharply disputed.

However, members of his White House team regularly demand anonymity when talking to reporters. That was the case Friday morning when Trump officials briefed reporters on chief of staff Reince Priebus’ contact with top FBI officials concerning the Russia reports.

Later Friday, several news organizations including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, CNN and Politico were blocked from joining a White House media gaggle — an informal briefing which is on the record, but disallows videography.

The Associated Press chose not to participate following the move by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Lauren Easton, the AP’s director of media relations, said in a statement: “The AP believes the public should have as much access to the president as possible.”

News organizations that were allowed in included the conservative website Breitbart news. The site’s former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is chief strategist to President Trump. Also invited were the Washington Times and One America News Network, both with conservative leanings. Journalists from Reuters, ABC, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, McClatchy, Bloomberg, and Fox News also attended.

Trump’s criticism has been particularly harsh on some of the outlets excluded from the briefing. He referred to CNN on Friday as the “Clinton News Network” and he has repeatedly referred to the New York Times as “failing.”

The exclusion set off an explosion of outrage.

“It’s a sign of dangerous things to come,” said Lucy Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who’s now dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. “Presidents have always shown favoritism to one media outlet or another by granting interviews to some and not others. But this is different.”

The group that represents journalists who cover the White House protested the exclusion.

“The WHCA board is protesting strongly against how today’s gaggle is being handled by the White House,” wrote Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, in a statement. “The board will be discussing this further with White House staff.”

When Spicer was asked by a reporter at the briefing whether he was playing favorites, he said he “disagreed with the premise of the question,” according to the audio.

“We’ve brought more reporters into this process. And the idea that every time that every single person can’t get their question answered or fit in a room that we’re excluding people. We’ve actually gone above and beyond with making ourselves, our team, and our briefing room more accessible than probably any prior administration. And so I think you can take that to the bank.

“We do what we can to accommodate the press. I think we’ve gone above and beyond when it comes to accessibility, and openness and getting folks — our officials, our team.”

As for Trump’s criticism of anonymous sources, Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said such arrangements are “essential to good reporting” in many cases.

“There are just some things that people will come forward about anonymously that they cannot discuss openly,” Leslie said, citing potential threats to jobs and even personal safety.

The Associated Press uses anonymous sources only if the material is factual information, not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report. It must come from a person who is reliable and in a position to have accurate information.

After his newest jibes, Trump turned his CPAC speech into a recitation of his top agenda items, promising bold action on health care, trade, immigration, energy and more.

“One by one, we’re checking off the promises we made to the American people,” he said, telling the group, “I will not disappoint you.”

Otherwise, the speech played out like a greatest hits reel from his 2016 campaign.

He reminisced about his victory in the Republican primaries. He vowed to “build the wall” along the Mexican border. He denounced Hillary Clinton’s characterization of some of his supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables.”

The crowd responded to his Clinton criticism with chants of “Lock her up!” just as they did at Trump rallies last year.

Los Angeles Times and McClatchy contributed.