Names may never hurt reporters, except psychologically, of course, but President Trump has started throwing sticks and stones. He is yanking press credentials and refusing to formally face reporters’ questions.
That doesn’t harm media businesses, but it is an existential threat to democracy.
Headlines last week were dominated by a standoff between Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution as congressional committees issued subpoenas demanding appearances before them. President Trump tweeted that no one would come and that Congress couldn’t make them.
At the same time, White House attacks on the press moved from Twitter to the real world. Press passes that give reporters access to White House briefings and other activities were revoked for a significant portion of the press, including all representatives of The Washington Post.
The “rules” imposed on reporters are so unrealistic that most senior journalists had to apply for “exceptions” to their pass revocation. Some news outlets were granted six-month passes that allow only limited access. Both can be pulled without notice by the White House press office.
Elected officials rarely love the press. Most chafe at some coverage they deem inaccurate or unfair. Nonetheless, they accept the intrusions and irritations because the free press is as much a part of a democratic government as they are.
Not these elected officials. Since his escalator ride to announce his candidacy, Trump has ridiculed, demonized and openly threatened journalists, especially those from mainstream media outlets like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The administration has limited previous attacks to tweets. Rather than control the press, the president has mostly just avoided reporters by limiting exchanges to shouted questions during impromptu encounters.
This latest move by the Trump administration is unprecedented and a frighteningly specific act. A free and independent press is always the first target of authoritarians. Without an aggressive and responsible press, voters cannot hold elected officials accountable because there is no way to learn what those officials are up to.
Eliminating press passes won’t stop reporters from covering Trump’s presidency or damage media outlets, but make no mistake—this is a direct attack on the free press and another front in the war on the Constitution unfolding in Washington.