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Then They Came For Me

By Tim Hayes

TV host Lou Dobbs this week said he supported the White House’s decision to ban a CNN reporter from a press event for asking President Trump questions earlier that day.  “My question is, who the hell are you?” Dobbs said after reading CNN’s statement about the ban. “The president does insist on respect.  It’s about time there were consequences for disrespectful behavior in the White House.”

Well, Lou, thanks for that interesting perspective.  A rebuttal, if I may?

“Who the hell are you?” you ask.  CNN and its reporter are properly, legally accredited members of the White House Press Corps, that’s who.  A press corps with a specific job to perform – namely, pressing the administration for answers regarding issues and policies of interest to the American people.  This arrangement has been around for a few years, now.  You may have heard about it, oh, maybe on…the news?

“Just because the White House is uncomfortable with a question regarding the news of day doesn’t mean the question isn’t relevant and shouldn’t be asked,” the CNN statement read. “This decision to bar a member of the press is retaliatory in nature and not indicative of an open and free press. We demand better.”

Bret Baier reiterated Fox News’ support for CNN following the ban. “As a member of the White House press pool, Fox stands firmly with CNN on this issue of access,” Baier said on air.  When this administration gets criticized by Fox News, you know it’s bad.

But, hey, let’s be realistic about it.  Every president gets fed up dealing with the media.  From John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and George Bush and Barack Obama.  Nothing new there.

Every president finds a way to handle the press, as well.  JFK used charm.  LBJ used a blending of finesse and pressure.  Most let their press secretaries take the arrows.  Again, nothing new.

But you might be hard-pressed to find any record of an administration actively isolating and barring individual reporters, and intentionally and aggressively working daily to delegitimize journalists as a group.  This, sadly, is new.  And it’s dangerous.

When freedom of the press is threatened – even in small doses, like this week’s instance might appear – voices need to rise up and hold fast in opposition.  Being posed uncomfortable questions may not be very enjoyable, but this is what office holders signed up for when they took the job.  Elected leaders at every level still work for the people, whether they would rather forget or disregard that truth or not.

A free and unfettered press is the vanguard of democracy.  I will never, ever step down from my soapbox on this point.  Journalists covering government – and especially the White House, regardless of who the current occupant may be at any given time – must be permitted to do their jobs.  No exceptions, no exclusions.

Dobbs’ statement that “The president does insist on respect” also gives me pause.  I agree that all Americans should respect the office of president.  Yet can respect for any individual be insisted upon?

Respect is earned through demonstrating maturity, responsibility, accountability, civility, and integrity.  As respect is earned, it becomes mutual – due to the other person, and owed to oneself.  Respect can’t be demanded or commanded.  Unquestioning obedience and loyalty, or operating under an environment of fear or intimidation, doesn’t produce respect.  Grudging accommodation, maybe.  But not true respect.

A president has every right to expect his staff to carry out his vision.  They are part of his team, of course.  But a critical media has no similar obligation.  They are charged with supporting our nation by challenging leaders, asking the tough questions, discerning the truth.  As Jefferson noted time and again, a well-informed electorate is essential to our future.  The White House is public space, after all.

So, Lou, I disagree with your assessment of the situation.  I see something much more upsetting afoot.  Something to be challenged, opposed, spoken about.

While you enjoy your station in life, comfortable, well-fed, without worry about arbitrarily losing what you have, it might be wise to think of those whose freedom to travel has been curtailed because of their religion.  Or those whose freedom to love whomever they love faces discrimination.  Or those whose editorial stance is under fire by an administration with a stated goal of causing Americans to lose faith in their reporting entirely – leaving the field open to complete control of information by government.

Loss of freedom starts small, but builds power as it rolls along.  After V-E Day in 1945, Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, described the danger of not speaking out in the early years of Nazism as follows:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Excluding a member of the press may not seem very threatening on the surface.  But it’s the tip of a slippery slope into an expanding loss of freedom.

Any attempt at such coercion must be challenged.  The press must be free, so that we all can remain so.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes