The White House press corps on Saturday held its annual celebration of itself, cramming 2,500 nattering narcissists into a Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom to eat overcooked filet mignon and fret about the fate of the First Amendment.
Olivier Knox, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which throws the increasingly debauched party, was in high dudgeon over the state of America’s media under the horror that is President Trump.
“I don’t want to dwell on the president,” Knox said in a speech, to much applause from the audience of fakes and phonies, charlatans and mountebanks. “This is not his dinner. It’s ours.”
Then Knox (whom this writer has known for more than a decade as a solid journalist and a great father) got personal.
“In nearly 23 years as a reporter, I’ve been physically assaulted by Republicans and Democrats, spat on, shoved, had crap thrown at me. And there was a brief moment in Afghanistan when I thought a soldier not quite old enough to shave would shoot me dead for the crime of taking a picture inside the presidential palace,” he said.
“And yet I still separate my career to before February 2017 and what came after,” he said. “February is when the president called us the ‘enemy of the people.’”
That is, of course, false. Trump calls the “fake news media” the “true enemy of the people” — as he did in an October 2018 tweet — because of their “inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news.” But that’s beside the point. Knox, who has covered the White House for years, was asserting that Trump is worse than his predecessors.
That, too, is false — demonstrably false. Yes, Trump is harsh — even immature — about the press and its coverage of him. He has thin skin and he’s never grown out of the name-calling phase of his snot-nosed youth. Trump’s a talker — often a whiner — but he’s never really done anything to the media, which are flourishing despite his supposed efforts to thwart them.
But President Obama — celebrated as The Chosen One and beloved by the media — stomped on the freedom of the press like no other president since Tricky Dick.
Obama, who pledged “the most transparent administration in history,” was deemed “the least transparent and the most antagonistic toward the media since the Nixon administration” by The San Diego Union-Tribune, which summed up his efforts to control the media in a single paragraph.
Some specifics? Obama’s administration prosecuted three times as many cases targeting whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous administrations combined. It said there was probable cause that a Fox News reporter was a “co-conspirator” in a plot against the U.S. government because of his attempts to gather information about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. It secretly scoured the phone records of nearly 100 Associated Press reporters and editors for two months, which an editorial in The New York Times characterized as “a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers.” And in 2014, according to AP, the Obama administration broke its own record for censoring government files or refusing to provide files sought under the Freedom of Information Act.
Since 1945, the government has used the Espionage Act of 1917 just 11 times to prosecute journalists and their government sources. Seven of those occurred while Obama was president.
By the time Obama was leaving office, his administration had set a new record for rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists trying to gather information, censoring materials or flat-out denying applications for access in 596,095 cases — or 77 percent of the time, according to a review conducted by The Associated Press. The irony of the situation was perfectly captured in a Vice News headline: “It Took a FOIA Lawsuit to Uncover How the Obama Administration Killed FOIA Reform.”
Having covered the White House for a dozen years — the end of Bill Clinton’s terms, the entire George W. Bush presidency, and the first two years of Obama — each administration has sought to limit access to journalists more than the last, and they’ve succeeded each and every time. It’s just the nature of the game — a high-stakes game, but a game nonetheless.
Trump is no different. But where he talks the big talk and loves to mix it up publicly with reporters — like CNN’s insufferable Jim Acosta — Obama quietly worked to throttle the press corps. Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, said in 2013 that “the administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
And that paper knows a thing or two about Tricky Dick.
*Joseph Curl ran the Drudge Report from 2010 to 2014 and covered the White House for a dozen years. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JosephCurl. A version of this article ran previously in The Washington Times.