Breitbart, the Trump White House, and the Future of a Free Press in National Politics

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Stephen-Bannon

stephen bannon / Paladin Justice

November 16, 2016; Associated Press and Politico

The appointment of Steve Bannon as a senior advisor to President-elect Donald Trump has drawn fire over Mr. Bannon’s history with Breitbart News, which has been accused of consistently taking white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic positions.

During the campaign, Donald Trump accused the press of unfairness and bias. Politico’s Jack Shafer described our new president’s relationship with the press while a candidate this way: “During the campaign, he promised to bring the press to heel by ‘opening up the libel laws’ to make it easier to bring and win suits against publications. He has singled out individual reporters as ‘sleazy,’ ‘extremely dishonest,’ ‘unfair,’ and ‘not good people’ and blacklisted individual reporters from access to his campaign. At rallies, he fed his audience the raw meat of press hatred.”

Early indications are that this animosity has not eased nor has President-elect Trump decided he needs to create a more civil relationship. His early morning Twitter stream continues to attack the press.

In a break with longstanding tradition, President-elect Trump has made it harder for the press to cover his activities by providing limited information about his schedule and limiting the press pool’s ability to be with him as he goes through his day. According to the AP:

Trump traveled from New York to Washington last week without a pool of journalists… with his transition team offering few details about his schedule…. Every president and president-elect in recent memory has traveled with a pool of journalists when leaving the White House grounds. News organizations take turns serving in the small group, paying their way and sharing the material collected in the pool with the larger press corps.

Steve Bannon’s ascent as chief strategist to the president-elect creates the potential for the White House to manage the media in an unprecedented manner. While the relationship between the White House and the Press Corps that covers it is often cantankerous, it is the media’s responsibility to cover government actions. Previous presidents have used strategies to spin their messages and control the news. The press has been known to trade away their independence in the hope of getting better access such as in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But both the president and the press have traditionally seen it necessary to work with each other even in difficult times. The newly elected administration may have a willing and exclusive channel through which it can directly put its story forward.

Yesterday, sixteen press organizations wrote a strongly worded letter defending their right to access to the executive branch of government.

We expect that you, as the new leader of the free world, will preserve longstanding traditions that ensure coverage of the Trump presidency. […] Every president of both parties has treated this important tradition with respect. The role of the press pool is critically important to our country whose citizens depend on and deserve to know what the president is doing. […] We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration…you have an opportunity as incoming president to set the tone for your staff speaking on the record for the sake of transparency. […] A great America depends on having sunlight on its leaders.

—Martin Levine and James Schaffer