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Opinion: Welcome to the Not Quite Free Press

Cover photo credit: CNN

It is apparent that we are living in a world where there is increasingly less accountability for our government’s actions. The job of the free press is to provide that transparency, but in the last two years of the Trump Administration, the press has come under siege like no time before in this country.

The Wednesday afternoon immediately following the midterm elections, President Trump crossed a dangerous new threshold. President Trump revoked CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass, effectively banning him from entering the White House. This happened because Acosta antagonized the president by persistently asking him whether he believed he was demonizing the caravan of migrants coming from Mexico. When an intern tried to take the microphone away mid-question, Acosta held firmly onto the microphone and finished his question. Trump berated him, saying “CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person…”

Later, in an attempt to justify Acosta’s press ban, the White House claimed that Acosta laid hands on the intern. To make matters worse, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders even posted a doctored video that speeds up the moment of interaction Acosta had with the intern to imply a stronger, more aggressive contact that is clearly disproved by the original footage.

At first glance, Acosta’s ban may not seem important. Many will chalk this action up to yet another petty move by a president who holds grudges and is vindictive or reduces its seriousness by saying that CNN can replace Acosta with another reporter. However, that would seriously underestimate the full scale of what has occurred. In reality, a reporter has been banned from the White House grounds, simply for asking a question that displeased the president.

In an interview with CNN, Acosta said, “I never thought in this country I wouldn’t be able to cover the President of the United States, simply because I was trying to ask a question.” It is virtually unprecedented for a president to ban a reporter from White House grounds, especially for asking important and timely questions many Americans want to hear, about the caravan and the Russia investigation. CNN reports that the closest comparison would be the case of Stuart Loory in 1971, who was banned after writing several stories challenging President Nixon and placed on what Nixon referred to as his “enemies list”. In a striking parallel, instead of answering Acosta’s questions, Trump said, “When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.”

A deeper look reveals that even one journalist’s ban from the White House can have serious consequences. Clearly, Trump sent a message to all other members of the press. Going forward in this new environment, reporters may be less likely to ask hard questions or think twice before asking a question they know will surely antagonize the president because the threat of a ban is clear. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is giving Trump control of the press. He will get to decide what is an appropriate question and what is a question that will get you banned.

On November 13, CNN announced that it was suing Trump and top White House aides for barring Acosta, and for violating his First and Fifth Amendment rights. Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN explained, “This is not a step we have taken lightly. But the White House action is unprecedented.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and, in a surprise move, Fox News, supported CNN in the lawsuit. While the purpose of this lawsuit is to reinstate Acosta’s press pass, it is to protect all journalists and will also serve to hopefully remind this president and White House that First Amendment rights exist.

Acosta stands for all of the free press; denying him access is a mark against the rights of free speech and a free press protected by the First Amendment and sets a very dangerous precedent. As a reporter, it is not just Acosta’s job, but also his responsibility to ask demanding questions and get answers from the president, and he did no more than that. The free press should not be at the mercy of any president, however popular or unpopular. The free press should not be concerned with pleasing a mercurial president. Without a free press, we do not have a free flow of information, and without information, we cannot be the enlightened society we should always strive to be.

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