President Donald Trump ratcheted up an increasingly hostile feud with the media Saturday, announcing he would skip a century-old annual correspondents’ dinner a day after a fierce row erupted over press access to the White House.
The Trump White House triggered widespread outrage on Friday by denying access to an off-camera briefing to several major US media, including CNN, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Politico.
Smaller outlets that have provided favorable coverage of the Trump administration, such as Breitbart and the One America News Network, received a green light to attend the briefing by the president’s spokesman Sean Spicer.
Donald Trump and Melania Trump arrive for the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington on April 30, 2011. AP-Yonhap
The move came just hours after Trump renewed his assault on the mainstream US media by calling it “the enemy of the people,” in an ongoing battle in which he has labeled the fourth estate “fake news” and the “opposition party.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association said it was “protesting strongly” against the decision to selectively deny media access, and would bring it up with the Republican administration.
The New York Times described the White House decision as “an unmistakable insult to democratic ideals,” while CNN called it “an unacceptable development” and the Los Angeles Times warned the incident had “ratcheted up the White House’s war on the free press” to a new level.
Trump doubled down in the stand-off Saturday when he announced he would not attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29, breaking with an annual tradition in which the US president is the guest of honor at a light-hearted roast held by journalists and studded with celebrities.
“I will not be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!” Trump tweeted.
The WHCA, organizer of the event which dates back to 1921, said it would go on as planned as a “celebration of the First Amendment (on freedom of the press) and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.”
Trump built his campaign on criticizing the mainstream US press -- many of whose editorial boards opposed his election -- and has intensified his rhetoric since taking office, routinely accusing the media of bias in overstating his setbacks and downplaying his accomplishments.
A week ago, at his first solo news conference, the 70-year-old launched into a long diatribe against dozens of journalists that were present, blaming their “dishonesty” for his month-old administration’s troubles.
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, a former head of the right-wing news site Breitbart, predicted Thursday that relations with the media would only get worse as the president rolls out his agenda.
It is not uncommon for Republican and Democratic administrations to brief a limited number of select reporters on specific themes.
However, Friday’s event was initially billed as a regular briefing open to credentialed media before it was reconfigured as a closed event for a cherry-picked group of participants, taking place in Spicer’s office.
A number of outlets that regularly cover the White House, including newswires Reuters and Bloomberg, attended. They are part of what is known as the “pool,” a small group of journalists who have access to certain events and share the contents with other media.
The Associated Press boycotted the event in protest at the exclusion of certain colleagues. AFP was not included despite being part of the press pool.
Its journalist protested, and attended the briefing uninvited.
During the off-camera briefing, Spicer said that the White House has shown an “abundance of accessibility ... making ourselves, our team and our briefing room more accessible than probably any previous administration.”
He did not give an explanation for the media selection.
As protests erupted over the incident, a December interview re-emerged in which Spicer told Politico that the Trump White House would never ban a news outlet.
“Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship,” he said.
Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for George W. Bush, said he viewed the White House’s stance as “unwise and counterproductive,” but also argued for Friday’s incident to be kept in perspective -- pushing back against the suggestion that it threatened the constitutional First Amendment.
“Press secretaries need to meet with the whole press,” he told CNN. “But beyond that, there is nothing unusual about presidents meeting with selected reporters, and White House staffs do it all the time too.” (AFP)