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Journalist Group’s Chief Decries News Filter at the White House

The Trump administration continues to ramp up its criticism of the mainstream media, arguing that it needs to bypass an “enemy of the people” that it has accused of being in league with Democrats to undercut the president’s policies and delegitimize his presidency.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s exclusion of a number of news outlets — including CNN and The New York Times, both of which have drawn particularly heavy fire from the tweeter-in-chief — from a post-press conference gaggle in his office drew heavy criticism, including from the Society of Professional Journalists, one of the many groups that have pushed the president for a meeting. Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton spoke with Lynn Walsh, national president of SPJ, about what’s next and the consequences of the arguably unprecedented animosity, certainly the most overt in modern times, coming from the Oval Office.

MCN:Is there anything SPJ can do about the exclusion of those news outlets, file some formal complaint, perhaps?
Lynn Walsh: We sent them a letter before President Trump took office along with up to 70 other journalism organizations, requesting a meeting but also talking about how important access to the Administration is and to government employees in general.

MCN:Did the White House grant that meeting?
LW: We have not heard back from them. And we are planning on following up with them shortly.

LW: We’re not exactly sure. Part of the issue is that there isn’t anything formal that we can really do to stop this from happening that we are aware of. If there is something we can do legally, it would be something that hasn’t been done before.

MCN:Like what?
LW: Talking to some attorneys, they have said you can potentially try to file some formal complaint. Again, I am not an attorney, but saying there is a threat to the First Amendment and are they violating the First Amendment. But it has never been done before. The question is would it be successful; are there any grounds? And on that there are a wide range of answers.

MCN:So, what is your next step. Will you be sending a letter to the White House?
LW: We are not planning on sending a formal letter. There are other organizations that I think might and we would sign onto that. We are planning on following up with the letter that we sent to them asking for the meeting and should know what that will be within the next week.

MCN:How concerned is SPJ about the president’s repeated “enemies of the people” characterization?
LW: It is something we have heard from the beginning. Trump during the campaign was saying this, and now he is continuing it as president.

Our issue is that the public should be concerned. If journalists, if news organizations, are not allowed access, how are they [the public] going to get the information, and are they OK with, if journalists aren’t allowed in or only hand-picked organizations are allowed in, that the news that they then receive is only coming through the filter that the administration wants them to see it through?

MCN:It seems to us the other side of that is the more you keep the media in the dark through official channels, the more they have to go to the leaks and unnamed sources the White House is now cracking down on, arguing those sources are unreliable?
LW: That is absolutely a concern. President Trump recently talked about not allowing journalists to use unnamed sources [at the conservative CPAC conference he said as much in throwing some red meat to a crowd that shared his disdain for the “mainstream” media]. As journalists, we do want to try not to use unnamed sources. But if you are not allowed access, we are then stuck with using the tidbits of information we may be getting. As you said, how correct is that information if you can’t verify it. If no one will answer a question or you are not allowed access to a document or you are not allowed access to ask a question.

It is important to point out that President Obama and other presidents would allow access to hand-selected reporters and news organizations. Granting one-on-one interviews, something President Trump has also done, is different than a press secretary not allowing specific news organizations access to a briefing meant for groups of journalists.