CEO Column: Press Access Is Essential to Democracy

The Alliance launched the Support Real News campaign nearly two years ago to combat the spread of misinformation and highlight the need for and importance of quality journalism from trusted, respected sources. Today, with bad information still rampant via online platforms and the increasing attacks on the media, our campaign has never felt more essential.

With the release of our newest ad last week, we — along with our Support Real News partners — are responding to recent attacks on the media, highlighting the importance of press access for the preservation of our democracy. In the ad, we called on the public to support press access, noting that the ability of reporters to accurately inform the public depends on their ability to ask questions of those in power.

While politicians have more opportunities than ever to speak directly to the public through social media, they are not held accountable in the same way. Only when questioned by professional journalists, who are committed to the profession’s code of ethics to seek and report the truth, are they held to their promises and required to answer to the public.

“While other avenues exist to obtain information, the robust, public back-and-forth we’ve come to expect in the James S. Brady briefing room helps highlight that no one in a healthy republic is above being questioned,” said Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, in The New York Times. “This retreat from transparency and accountability sets a terrible precedent.”

Under the Trump administration, the White House has done away with the regular press briefing, dropping the near-daily meetings between the press secretary and the press in favor of letting the president’s tweets and rallies — and the occasional official statement — fill the void. Since September 2018, Trump has averaged one briefing per month, and during the rare full-corps briefings, he has not always taken questions from the media.

Trump’s horrible comments and tweets about the media being “the enemy of the people” have undoubtedly influenced public perception and contributed to increased attacks on reporters. On Wednesday, Trump did it yet again with The New York Times after they published an article about his attempts to influence investigations into him and his associates. And the day before our Press Access ad ran in newspapers, on February 11, a Trump supporter pushed and shoved a BBC cameraman at a rally in El Paso, Texas, while the cameraman was attempting to capture the event for BBC viewers.

These attacks on the press are no more acceptable than the murder of five reporters from the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018 – an attack which was also motivated by a belief that the journalists were producing “fake news.”

In addition to these physical attacks, the press is now getting stymied just trying to attend press conferences and other political events, most notably in November, when the White House revoked CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass after Acosta tried to ask Trump a follow-up question during a rare briefing.

Journalists work hard every day to deliver critically important news and information to the public, which is why “freedom of the press” is specifically protected by the First Amendment. Central to this freedom is the ability of journalists to ask questions of government officials and others in positions of power. Without press freedom, our democracy is at risk — which is why we all need to speak up now and support journalism and the right of the press to ask hard questions and seek uncomfortable truths.

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