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Trump’s ban on The Post attacks a fundamental value

Good reporters know that the best stories don’t come from following a politician from campaign stop to campaign stop, scribbling down every word said at a podium.

They also know that you don’t ask your best question at a news conference. Why let every other news organization know what you’re working on?

But Donald Trump’s decision last week to revoke The Washington Post’s media credentials is nonetheless unsettling.

The ban was prompted by a Post headline about last weekend’s horrific Orlando shooting: “The Washington Post unfortunately covers Mr. Trump very inaccurately,” according to a release on Trump’s website. “Today’s headline, “Donald Trump Suggests President Obama Was Involved With Orlando Shooting” is a perfect example. We no longer feel compelled to work with a publication which has put its need for “clicks” above journalistic integrity.

“They have no journalistic integrity and write falsely about Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump does not mind a bad story, but it has to be honest. The fact is, The Washington Post is being used by the owners of Amazon as their political lobbyist so that they don’t have to pay taxes and don’t get sued for monopolistic tendencies that have led to the destruction of department stores and the retail industry.”

The decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials will have little practical effect on The Post’s campaign coverage. As with any serious media outlet, The Washington Post has not in the past relied on stump coverage to keep its audience informed about the presidential race. There’s plenty to write about off the beaten path, from holding candidates accountable for what they’ve done in the past to examining what their proposals would really mean for our country if they became reality.

Sure, covering the stump speeches will be a little bit of a hassle for its reporters, who now need to gain access to events as part of the general public. That’s what Post reporters did this past week at a Trump rally in North Carolina. Among the topics they reported on was Trump’s gleeful derision of their news organization.

From their report: “Trump also bragged to the audience about recently revoking press credentials for reporters at The Washington Post, whom he accused of being dishonest and blasted Monday for a headline he said was misleading. The story was about remarks he made, in two television interviews, in which he seemed to suggest that President Obama sympathized with terrorists. ‘They’re so dishonest, we just took the press credentials away. I love it! We just took the press credentials away from the dishonest Washington Post,’ Trump said, as the crowd roared with laughter.”
I’m not laughing. Neither should anybody who cares about democracy. Trump clearly has a very limited understanding of the importance of a free press in our society. That wouldn’t trouble me if he wasn’t running for the highest office in the land. But he is. This isn’t a reality TV show, or at least I hope it’s not. This is our nation, where one of our fundamental values is the free flow of ideas.

The Washington Post is just the latest in a string of news organizations or reporters Trump has banned. The list, which I expect will get longer as the campaign unfolds, includes POLITICO, The Daily Beast, Univision, The Des Moines Register, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The press is not a pest just trying to make money by selling newspapers or building television audiences. A cornerstone of our democracy is the ability of every citizen to be involved in governing.

They primarily do it by voting, but they also do it by speaking their minds, asking questions and voicing dissent or approval. One vital function of a free press is to keep that citizenry informed.

Too often, that information involves a matter of crucial public concern that the government would prefer be kept secret. One of our jobs is to pry out that information.

Donald Trump is not alone. Nearly every politician, including President Obama, tries in some way to control the press. They don’t return phone calls, they feed information to our competitors and they criticize. They also try to control us with kindness, by handing us scoops, stroking our egos with praise and granting us exclusive access in exchange for favorable access in the future.

But what’s happening here is extraordinary.

While Trump’s ban won’t lessen The Washington Post’s campaign coverage, it sent a dangerous message to journalists and does not bode well for the future. It also undercuts the credibility of the news media in the eyes of the public.

Public distrust of the press is not new but the institution itself, considered by some to be the fourth branch of government, is a noble one worthy of support from our leaders.

Consider Trump’s earlier statements expressing a desire to make it easier for public figures to successfully sue for libel.

Trump’s criticisms of the press have primarily been focused on coverage he believes is unfair, biased or wrong. He does, he has said numerous times, support a free press.

He should. He received, in fact, about $55 million worth of press in the early days of the presidential campaign, according to a Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy report issued last week on the pre-primary presidential election media coverage. Jeb Bush was second with $36 million. That report, which dealt in part with the role the media plays in campaigns, concluded that “although [Trump] subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”

Public distrust of the news media is nothing new, but Donald Trump appears to be feeding that distrust. Certainly there is room for criticism of the press. We will get things wrong and make errors of judgment. But those in the mainstream press strive every day to get things right, to be fair and to tell the truth.

We’re not asking for applause or thanks. We’re asking not to be vilified.

Judy Patrick is editor of The Daily Gazette.

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