GUEST VIEW: Thanks, Judge Kelly, for protecting the press

The following editorial was published in the Chicago Tribune:

(TNS) When the Founding Fathers established freedom of the press as a constitutional right, they didn’t hedge their support with the phrase as long as they’re nice about it. A free press by design is a check on power and often a robust critic of government.

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to disparage the news media. That honor goes to George Washington, who deplored the “infamous scribblers” of his day. Trump’s attacks, though, are a core part of his political messaging. When he bashes reporters as dishonest or rude, he’s trying to undermine the news media’s credibility. Any story Trump doesn’t like is fake news.

This rocky relationship with the press is now the focus of a high-stakes court fight. So far, thankfully, the press is winning.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly signaled that the Trump administration was wrong to ban CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House. CNN filed suit this week after Acosta was stripped of his press credential for being an aggressive questioner. Kelly instructed the White House to restore Acosta’s press pass.

Further court action on the matter is anticipated. It will be vital that Kelly’s final ruling — like his Friday order — protects journalists from government interference.

Banning Acosta was a cynical attempt by the White House to control the reporting process — an obvious violation of the guarantee of a free press. A crucial element of journalism is that news organizations decide which reporters to assign to stories. Newsgathering isn’t a collaborative exercise with the people reporters cover. It must be an independent process, something the Founding Fathers embraced.

Trump doesn’t understand or, more likely, chooses to ignore this constitutional obligation because he finds it useful to treat reporters as foils. Here, for example, was Trump picking on Acosta and using doublespeak to diminish the First Amendment in a Wednesday interview with The Daily Caller: “Is it freedom of the press when somebody comes in and starts screaming questions … I don’t think that’s freedom of the press, I actually think that’s the opposite.”

No doubt Acosta comes off as abrasive during White House press briefings. But journalism is a tough business, especially when news organizations seek to hold wily government officials accountable. Reporters are watchdogs, not trained seals.

The risk with CNN’s court case is that if the network ultimately loses, the Trump administration would have legal precedent to bar any reporters it dislikes from the White House. Perhaps other officials across the country would adopt similar tactics to freeze out pesky reporters who ask tough questions about budgets or policing or the treatment of vulnerable residents. Our point isn’t that journalists wouldn’t get their way, it’s that journalists act on behalf of citizens to hold public officials accountable for their work.

In the meantime, Kelly’s order that the White House return Acosta’s press pass doesn’t leave the Trump administration powerless to run its operation. White House officials decide whom to call on at briefings or grant interviews. Journalists and politicians routinely tussle over the granting of access and information.

It would be best for both sides if CNN and the White House repair their relationship. It’s not that hard to be civil. As reporters ourselves, we know the drill. We ask persistent questions of government officials who would rather change the subject. Most of the time, we seek to be polite and, most of the time, so do they.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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