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White House’s New Rules Prove the Fight for Free Press Is Far From Over (Column)

Trump Jim Acosta CNN White House
Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstoc

It’s undeniably great that CNN political ace Jim Acosta got his press pass fully restored after the Trump administration yanked his credentials, claiming the journalist had disrupted a Nov. 7 press conference by insisting on asking the president a follow-up question.

But, the victory may be short-lived — and is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that the White House issued a new set of rules for the media to follow during press briefings that limit a reporter to asking a single question unless the president or other White House officials permit otherwise.

The backlash to these inane rules of engagement, which threaten journalists with the loss of their hard passes if they don’t comply, has been understandably fierce. I completely concur with those quoted in our Nov. 19 story by political reporter Ted Johnson — a story that posits why the new White House rules are problematic.

“‘While a [White House] official has always been able to decline to answer a follow-up question, these ‘rules’ suggest that a reporter could jeopardize her or his hard pass simply by attempting to ask a single follow-up question without permission,” said Katie Townsend, legal director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, noting the group is “very concerned” about the new rules.

“‘How these rules will be applied is entirely unclear, and the way they are written leaves wide open the possibility that the [White House] will use them as an excuse to avoid answering questions it does not like, or — as it did with Mr. Acosta and CNN — to punish particular reporters and news outlets based on what the [White House] views as unfavorable coverage of the administration.’”

We already know how thin-skinned Trump is when it comes to his own press coverage and how he must have bristled when reading a quote from Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project: “The White House belongs to the public, not the president,” said Wizner, “and the job of the press is to ask hard questions, not be polite company.”

Under the new rules, Acosta, standing on the White House lawn, was already impertinent enough to ask an uninvited follow-up question.

Let’s hope that continues.