Whither Infowars? The revolution in the White House Press Room

Friends, I know that journalists are obscurely unpopular right now among people who want to blame us for everything that has gone wrong ever while simultaneously lauding Teen Vogue and bragging about subscribing to the New York Times. The fact is that we provide a valuable social service, and that includes bringing information that you would not be able to obtain otherwise. Some of that information comes from the White House, which has a long history of maintaining a press corps.

Getting credentialed at the White House used to be kind of a big deal. You had to be a media organisation of sufficient size and clout, and with that came the weight of being accountable to readers. Yes, that meant that lots of great small publications couldn’t get a seat, which was not great — and some of those large organisations fell down on the job with things like fact checking and responsibly covering various issues of importance. But generally, broadly speaking, the White House Press Corps was vetted and it was an important part of the media — and even when it was hostile to the White House, it was accepted as part of the price of doing business.

Presidents have, for a very long time, recognised that the press are going to report on them whether they like it or not. They’ve also recognised that creating connections, reaching out and establishing bonds, and working with the media can help the nation better understand what’s happening in Washington and why. I’ve watched countless press briefings and watched lots of different presidents interact with the press. It’s sometimes a difficult relationship, but it’s a key one, which is why the press were brought into the White House in the first place.

And it’s why what’s happening with the Trump Administration is concerning me. We already know that the administration is extremely hostile to journalists and the media — we’re reminded of it on a daily basis on the president’s Twitter account. We know that they like to tightly control access and limit who has the keys to the kingdom on the basis of what happened during the campaign, when journalists from reputable news outlets (like The Washington Post) were cut out of events for failing to report with sufficient sycophantic zeal. All of these things were warning signs.

But the way the press room is being run now is deeply worrying. It’s not just that officials trot out to feed the press a pack of lies and expect everyone to be okay with this. It’s the reshuffling of the seats that worries me, particularly the introduction of ‘news outlets’ that are blatant purveyors of falsehoods, including incredibly damaging propaganda. Trump likes those outlets because they serve his own interests, which is how Breitbart ends up with a front row seat in a room it doesn’t belong in.

I don’t think that the press corps should be political. And I think that people from a balance of publications, including far left and right along with more moderate, should be represented. These organisations should be able to convey information from the source to their readers and it serves all of us when they’re in the room. I might not necessarily like what far-right publications have to print, or agree with their assessments of given situations and issues, but it’s not actually their job to please me.

And most presidents and their staff have done a reasonable job of trying to keep the press corps diverse and dynamic, representing a range of interests. This is good and as it should be. However, most have refrained from crossing the line between extremist but fact checked and reasonably accurate and organisations that basically just print whatever they want to with no accountability. And I say this about both left and right publications, because there are absolutely left-wing purveyors of falsehoods and lies that do their own kind of damage.

Being in the White House Press Room carries with it some responsibility. You’re reporting to the nation, taking up one of a very limited number of spaces with your body and equipment. You have a responsibility to be accurate, and while your reporting may further an agenda (all reporting furthers an agenda), it stays within the bounds of reasonable facts and actual information. It shouldn’t be seeded with lies. It shouldn’t be appearing on websites with blatantly false, bigoted headlines designed to prey on fears and foment hatred.

We shouldn’t be lending credence to these publications because we should be better as a nation. This shouldn’t be difficult. We should be able to distinguish between Infowars and the National Review, or Reason. All of them are conservative to varying degrees and many of them print things I disagree with or think are highly disingenuously framed. Some strive for more factual accuracy than others, and work to convey information that is factually correct, even if sometimes creatively interpreted and manipulated. (Again, the same could be said of a number of darlings on the left — but since Trump isn’t inviting fake news organisations from the left to be treated as serious publications, I’m focusing on the right.)

Trump has repeatedly indicated that he holds freedom of the press in extreme contempt. That’s very crystal clear in the way he chooses which news organisations to engage with. At some point, you have to have a reasonable cutoff on who is and isn’t allowed in the room — and I’m not opposed to including small publications, especially on a rotating schedule to give a diversity of news organisations an opportunity to participate. I am, though, opposed to using the press room to further your own self-serving propaganda, and you should be too — because choking off access is all part of the framework designed to make the administration untouchable.