For the first time in recent memory, President Donald Trump has singled out and banned a single media outlet from a pre-State of the Union Address (SOTU) luncheon. Since the days of George Washington, the annual SOTU has been delivered at the start of each calendar year by the president to a joint session of Congress. As has been a customary tradition, preceding each SOTU, the sitting president invites news anchors from major US networks for an off-the-record lunch. Despite President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the media, he has usually maintained such traditions — until this year.
It was reported earlier today that news anchors from CNN have not been invited to the annual sit-down with the president this year, in a bizarre breach of protocol. Those who have not been extended invitations include Wolf Blitzer, who has been present at the gathering for the past 20 years.
As word of CNN’s exclusion spread, an eerily similar situation was playing out across the Atlantic.
Trump’s aggressive approach towards the media has spread into the politics of other western democracies. Like Trump, fellow New York-born and ridiculous hair-sporting world leader Boris Johnson, prime minister of the UK, banned journalists from certain progressive outlets from Downing Street yesterday. At a Downing Street press briefing, Lee Cain, Johnson’s senior communication adviser, announced that certain journalists would no longer be allowed to attend, including those from The Independent, The Guardian, HuffPost, and The Mirror. Almost all of these publications had taken explicitly anti-Brexit editorial lines in the past few months.
In response and in solidarity, journalists from outlets on the invite list, ranging from the BBC, Sky News and ITV to The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun turned around in Downing Street’s lobby and refused the briefing on Britain’s EU trade negotiations. It was an encouraging moment where an increasingly divided media came together to stand up for freedom of press, regardless of their differing views and approaches.
Like their British counterparts, to maintain freedom of press, US outlets on the White House invite list should have boycotted the pre-SOTU luncheon. Noticing the direct parallels across the ocean, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, referring the British media boycott of Downing Street stated earlier today that “solidarity needs to be modeled by news organizations here in the US for the sake of free press.” Unfortunately, it seems the representatives she was talking about weren’t listening.
This isn’t Trump’s first attempt to exclude people critical of his administration. In 2018, the White House infamously suspended CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass. Kaitlan Collins, a CNN reporter, was banned from a White House press conference in the same year. And only yesterday, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed and his colleague were inexplicably expelled from a Trump event in West Des Moines.
Love him or loathe him, Trump’s “content” brings in viewers, subscribers and readers, and has been referred to as “The Trump Goldrush”. CNN itself, which has often been the butt of Trump’s media tirades and is frequently referred to by the president as “fake news”, has reported record viewership and profits amassing $1.2 billion over the past year.
Perhaps because of this, and despite repeatedly attacking the media, Trump gets a huge amount of airtime and column inches dedicated to his every bizarre move. Throughout his 2016 campaign, the now-president was provided with $1.9 billion in free media coverage, compared with his closest Republican rival for candidacy, Ted Cruz, receiving a mere $0.3 billion. For every minute Bernie Sanders had on TV in 2016, Trump was afforded over 16 minutes. Sanders’ fans will be quick to tell you that in one instance, ABC News World Tonight gave Trump 81 minutes of coverage and the Vermont Senator a meager 20 seconds.
Trump’s latest incursions on the First Amendment represent his growing sense of “invincibility”, which doesn’t bode well for his 2020 campaign. Journalists should have taken a leaf from their British counterparts today and boycotted the pre-SOTU lunch as an act of resistance, whatever their views and whoever they are. The First Amendment is supposed to be more important than a single president and his whims.
The White House daily press briefing has already been cancelled, lest we forget. Further infringements on media freedom shouldn’t be allowed — not least by media representatives themselves.