Attacking a free press: Actions speaker louder than heated words

President Trump meets with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo credit: Alexander Shcherbak/TASS/Getty Images

Much of the heated rhetoric directed by the Trump administration toward news organizations has been little more than that – just a blast of hot air. Uncomfortable, but deserving of little attention beyond the moment, and best simply endured.

Of course, when a president of the United States calls journalists “enemies of the people,” it raises the verbal stakes a bit. It shows disregard for the checks-and-balances system of our democracy, and ignorance of the very role of a free press, which the nation’s founders saw quite clearly, even given the hyperpartisan press of that era. It also bears a disturbing resemblance to language used by dictators and thugs-in-power in nations where freedom is in short supply.

But then there are times when actions speak louder than even the harshest words.

U.S. journalists were banned from Wednesday’s meeting between President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. The only “reports” from the meeting were photo handouts from the Russian state news agency TASS, and a White House official summary offering such meaningful insights as “The President further emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Really? A mouthpiece press organ for Vladimir Putin gets access to the Oval Office, and the American public’s constitutionally-noted “watchdogs on government” are excluded?

What’s next? A tourist T-shirt, that staple of D.C. street vendors, which says “The Russians visited the White House today and all I got was this lousy photo and politically correct mush!”

And then there was the arrest Tuesday of a West Virginia radio reporter who persistently questioned Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, as Price and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway walked through the state capitol.

Reporter Dan Heyman of Public News Service was trying to walk alongside Price, holding up his cellphone while loudly asking a question, various press accounts said. The official arrest record accuses Heyman — a veteran journalist, wearing press credentials — of “aggressively breaching the security line” around Price and “causing a disturbance by yelling questions.”

The Washington Post reported that Heyman repeatedly asked Secretary Price whether domestic violence would be considered a preexisting condition under the GOP version of a new national health care program. Heyman was charged under a state law related to interrupting “state government process,” but the arrest document didn’t specify what “government process” was being interrupted, or how.

The job of journalists is to ask questions on behalf of all of us. Journalists cannot ask those questions or document what is happening if they are not allowed in the room. And if public officials refuse to respond to questions about issues in the public interest, journalists have an obligation to keep asking.

For those distracted by various claims that the West Virginia reporter was “persistent” or “shouting,” or the criminal complaint that Heyman was “aggressively breaching the agents” — there’s nothing in the First Amendment that says public officials can only be asked questions in press conferences.

Multiple eyewitnesses dispute the police claim of security restrictions being “breached.” And being persistent as a journalist sometimes means repeatedly asking a question, at times in a manner that we would consider impolite in any other context. But in a public space, directed at public officials, on a significant matter of public interest, it’s not rude — it’s just doing the job, on the public’s behalf.

We deserve answers from the people we elect to public office, and those answers are often extracted by journalists, as representatives of the people. We should get news reports from news organizations, not from pap provided by government toadies and handout photos carefully chosen to fit a scripted message.

And journalists reporting on matters of public interest should not have to worry about having to ask follow-up questions while in police custody.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter:@genefac.

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