CNN Vs Trump: Is Access Journalism A Right Or A Privilege For The Media?

by R Jagannathan - Nov 15, 2018 11:27 AM +05:30 IST
CNN Vs Trump: Is Access Journalism A Right Or A Privilege For The Media?US President Donald Trump gets into an exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a news conference at the White House in Washington. (Al Drago - Pool/GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • The ultimate truth is that powerful people lose credibility when they speak only to the favoured few; it is equally true that privileged access damages journalistic credibility.

    With or without access, journalists need to be able to do their jobs.

The legal battle in a US court over the White House’s decision to end the press accreditation of CNN journalist Jim Acosta makes for an interesting case study about press freedom and the hankering after access journalism that elite journalists seem to demand as a right.

At a White House presser last week, Acosta questioned President Donald Trump’s characterisation of a caravan of refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – many of them potential illegal migrants into the US through the Mexican border – as an “invasion” even when it was hundreds of miles away from the border. Trump replied that he could have a different term for the same situation than Acosta, after which the latter accused Trump of demonising immigrants. Upto this point it was merely a terse interaction, but once Acosta refused to give up the mike after Trump wanted to move on to other questions, the interaction got more acrimonious with Trump criticising CNN and resorting to his usual accusation of calling it a purveyor of “fake news”. (See the YouTube video on this interaction here).

There is little doubt that Trump has been the rudest President ever, but it was equally obvious that Acosta carried his hostility too far, and refusing to give up the mike when asked to do so amounted to claiming a right to continue asking his own questions when the President had moved on. In the White House, the President can choose who he wants to answer.

Following the withdrawal of his White House accreditation, Acosta’s channel CNN sued the White House claiming this amounted to denial of his First Amendment (free speech) and due process rights. A decision by the judge was expected later in the day (15 October). The White House’s defence is that Acosta lost his press pass because of his rude behaviour. Other CNN journalists did not lose access to the White House.

Three issues are thrown up by these developments.

One, is access to the White House a right for journalists? Or is it a privilege given to people the President considers kosher? And if it is a right, on what basis can it be denied to anyone?

Two, does the White House have no right to recall its access passes for any reason? Would giving Acosta a fair hearing, by issuing a show cause or demanding an apology before proceeding with his expulsion, have been the right way to go about it? Or is a journalist to be excused all his excesses in the name of the First Amendment?

Three, who is the real owner of access – the media house or the person himself? In this case, clearly it is not CNN that is being turfed out, despite a frosty and adversarial relationship with the Trump White House. It is only Acosta who has lost his membership of this elite group of journos. While CNN can claim that the White House cannot pick and choose who will represent it for media briefings, surely it cannot also claim that the behaviour of its journalists has no bearing on his continued access?

The reality is that pressers are not always a matter of right, though it makes sense for the White House to make them inclusive, so that its messages go through clearly to the public. The right to ask questions does not guarantee the right to receive answers, though one can draw one’s own conclusions from evasions and misleading truths that presidents may utter. Media is free to do its stories regardless of access, and the demand that access is key to good journalism is actually damaging to the credibility of the media. It is very easy for presidents, or, for that matter, any government, to give some journos preferred access and obtain the kind of coverage they want.

The problem is really with those journalists whose bread-and-butter depends on access to those in power. If they can’t do their journalism without this crutch, they are lesser journalists than they think. You can do stories even without the President’s consent or answers.

The ultimate truth is that powerful people lose credibility when they speak only to the favoured few; it is equally true that privileged access damages journalistic credibility. With or without access, journalists need to be able to do their jobs.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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