Great Britain

State of the Union: Rival US networks attend pre-SOTU lunch despite CNN exclusion — day after UK press stage mass walkout

A day after UK journalists expressed solidarity with colleagues excluded from a Downing Street briefing by walking out, network news anchors in the US attended the traditional pre-State of the Union lunch – despite the exclusion of CNN.

It is a tradition for the president to host news anchors from all the major networks in an off-the-record setting so that those covering the event can get a sense of the themes and content of the speech beforehand. 

Donald Trump has continued this tradition despite his often sour relations with the media. This is believed to be the first time that a president has singled out a network to be excluded, though.

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“Anyone who has a private, off-the-record lunch or meeting has a right to invite who they want,” said Hogan Gidley, principal deputy White House press secretary. 

When pressed on whether the snub was due to perceptions inside the West Wing about CNN’s coverage, Mr Gidley declined to comment.

Another White House official, when asked if the decision to exclude the network came directly from Mr Trump, replied: “I think that’s a fair assumption.”

Reacting to the news on Twitter, many are comparing the situation to the barring of journalists from yesterday’s Downing Street Brexit policy briefing and wonder why US anchors did not boycott the lunch.

British journalists walked out after the prime minister’s director of communications tried to restrict it to selected publications and broadcasters — going as far as to divide the assembled group in two on either side of a rug before ordering those on one side to leave.

Their colleagues who had been told they could stay all walked out in protest. The prime minister’s tactics were likened to those of the Trump administration that has frequently barred journalists from briefings.

In reference to the State of the Union lunch, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins asked on Twitter: “Why would any other anchor go to this?”

Twitter users were quick to condemn the lack of a boycott by other networks. Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted: “These journalists boycotted the British government’s briefing after their colleagues were banned. Solidarity needs to be modelled by news organisations here in the US for the sake of free press.”

“Every anchor and journalist should stand in solidarity and not go,” said one Twitter user.

“They shouldn't ... it should be boycotted by all networks, anchors, etc.” said another. 

“Shame on ANY anchor that attends this pre-SOTU luncheon.”

Specifically referencing the move by UK journalists, one tweet read: “We could learn from them.”

Michael Calderone, senior editor of The Hive, tweeted that anchors from NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News and C-SPAN attended the lunch.

In 2019, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer were present at the lunch. Mr Blitzer has attended the event for 20 years. 

The president has frequently sparred with CNN, refusing sitdown interviews, attacking the network as a whole and singling out individual reporters and anchors.

In 2018 the White House suspended CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass, only restoring it when a federal court ruled in favour of the network.

The journalist Lesley Stahl, of CBS's 60 Minutes show, said that she had asked Mr Trump in 2016 why he continually insulted the media, and said that he replied: "You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you."