Donald Trump’s war against the press and free speech has been a defining characteristic of his administration. On the campaign trail, he frequently turned his crowds on journalists, endangering them.
Now that he’s in office, he has degraded the ability of journalists around the world to expose corruption and wrongdoing with his constant assaults on what he deems “fake news.” Trump thinks that any media source that’s not in love with him is not legitimate.
Of course, the job of the media is not to be friendly to government. The job of journalists is to ask hard questions and to hold power accountable. That’s why journalism is a pillar of democracy, and protected in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Journalism, and the freedom of speech, is an American tradition. It’s an American value. Trump’s administration has never understood that. It should come as no surprise, then, that they’ve taken a new step in their war on the press – simply refusing to answer questions on the record at all.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Trump spokesman Hogan Gidly refused to answer questions from reporters on Monday, instead insisting that off-the-record questions be asked:
‘In a day filled with news, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One that he would not take any questions on the record.
‘While returning from Utah, where Trump announced a rollback of protections for national monuments in the state, Gidley read reporters a brief series of statements on a few news items of the day – including Trump’s endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and a Supreme Court decision to allow his travel ban to be enforced for now.
‘Then he announced that he would be declining to answer any questions on the record.
‘Why was the White House refusing on-the-record questions? Gidley said he would not answer that question on the record. ‘
At first glance, the reasoning for this move seems clear. When reporters agree not to put your remarks on the record, they’re not saying they’re not going to use them. They’re saying they’re not going to name you. When you read stories about “sources in the White House,” or other “anonymous” sources, most of the time it’s simply someone who doesn’t want their name printed for whatever reason. They could be blowing the whistle, or not wanting to be hassled, or not wanting to lose a job or career.
Sometimes, unscrupulous hacks use anonymous sources to wholesale make up stories. However, those efforts are easily spotted and debunked most of the time. Papers of record like the New York Times (and others) that have existed for over 100 years have developed a longstanding reputation for accurate reporting and protecting their sources, because their stories are rarely disproven. When they say someone said something, you generally trust them because of a long history of excellence in journalism.
However, part of the attacks that Trump has lobbed against the press take advantage of the trust required to believe unnamed sources. Trump, and his representatives, frequently deride the press for “anonymous sources,” a term said in a condescending way and intended to make you believe their sources do not actually exist (when they do). It therefore follows that this refusal to answer questions on the record simply removes their ability to report on the White House and attach a name to the source. The WH spokesman can say anything off the record, deny it later, and attempt to portray the media as dishonest.
When your official position is as a spokesperson, there is no reason to comment off the record.
Luckily, nobody took the bait.
Featured image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images