After CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins was barred from covering a White House press event on Wednesday for asking questions about a payment to a woman alleging an affair with Trump, something positive happened: The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) took to her defense, as did Fox News host Bret Baier, who went on air and declared, “Fox stands firmly with CNN on this issue.”
It was a welcome sign of solidarity—and one that did not please all of Fox News’ fans. When responding to one critic, Baier replied, “Sorry you feel that way. They are members of the WH press pool. Kaitlan was doing what pool reporters do. We stand for access for WH reporters—no matter what you think about their coverage. Again, no Reagan supporter loved Sam Donaldson, but he was there—always.”
While the MAGA crowd was dragging Baier on Twitter for this, mainstream journalists were coming to his defense. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz tweeted that Baier “is getting unwarranted flak tonight for siding with CNN and other news organizations protesting heavy-handed WH efforts to retaliate against @kaitlancollins for doing her job. He deserves praise for demonstrating solidarity in behalf of a free press.”
Support for Collins, a current CNN and former Daily Caller colleague who shouted “inappropriate questions,” is a good sign. But it reminds me of another former Daily Caller colleague who also asked an inappropriate question that also dominated news cycles but didn’t garner as much sympathy: Neil Munro.
Instead of being championed as a hero or martyr, Munro’s question about why the president was favoring undocumented immigrants over U.S. citizens was framed as “heckling” by writers at multiple news outlets (Politico, HuffPost, CNN―you name it). This was back in 2012, and Obama was announcing a new policy that would grant DREAMers a temporary reprieve from deportation.
In response to Wednesday’s Collins controversy, the WHCA issued a statement condemning “the White House’s misguided and inappropriate decision today to bar one of our members from an open press event after she asked questions they did not like.”
Want to know how the WHCA defended Neil Munro’s questioning of Barack Obama? They called him “discourteous.”
In fairness, the criticism of Munro was that he was breaking ground rules by interrupting the president. There's no claim that Collins was doing that. And I don't think the Obama White House banned the Daily Caller from anything afterwards. But in terms of the reaction of his colleagues, the differences are stark. Obama wasn't planning to take questions and Munro broke decorum to ensure that he would. Reporters should have been defending that principle instead of the principle of etiquette. I can’t recall any mainstream journalists defending Munro, although I’m sure some did.
My point being that it matters a great deal if your colleagues support you. Bret Baier has CNN’s back, while Munro was left twisting in the wind. Will mainstream media outlets be so aggressive when a Democrat is back in the Oval Office? I should hope so. Anyone involved in media should be in agreement on this. We all have a shared interest in preserving the ability for journalists to ask powerful people hard questions.
Just as President Obama cracked down on press he didn’t like (see James Risen and James Rosen), you never know who’s going to be in charge next, or if you will work for an ostracized media outlet someday. But if the goal is to make sure that large and small outlets on the ideological spectrum continue to stick up for one another, they should develop a strategy going forward.
Here’s the thing about a crisis: It’s too late to come up with a plan of action after it happens. In fact, a show of unity today might actually prevent provocation tomorrow.
So what could media outlets do to prevent this from happening again? “Never Trump” conservative Bill Kristol has suggested that “the cable news divisions could announce that to deter such behavior in the future, they won't televise Trump's next rally live.”
This is a bold idea, but there’s a danger that this might play into Trump’s hands.
“If we start banding together, and doing organized protests, that makes us part of the story in a way that’s going to convince the people who voted for him that we’re out to get him,” warns Carl Cannon, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for RealClearPolitics, who previously headed the WHCA. “It’s a very awkward position to be in—that he’s put us in, really.”
Cannon, who reminds me that “Trump doesn’t own the White House,” points out that “Bill Clinton was asked questions like this in front of foreign leaders and never banned anyone,” worries about unintended consequences.
He has a point. So here’s a modest proposal for the WHCA and media outlets to consider: If a journalist is banned or otherwise shutdown, there should be an understanding that the remaining news outlets will defer to the banned reporter’s outlet for the first several questions at the next briefing.The banned reporter should also have another reporter pinch hit and ask questions on his or her behalf.
This process isn’t radical, but it would serve as a disincentive to a White House that wants to ban reporters.
Bret Baier deserves our praise and respect for doing the right thing on Wednesday. But anyone who cares about institutions knows you can’t rely on the next guy volunteering to do the heroic thing. There’s always a temptation to pander to your audience or “base.” Not everyone is as noble as Bret Baier, which is why institutions, alliances, and yes, “norms,” are important.