Is it a “ban” or a “pause”?
That question—which has dogged President Trump’s White House over the chaotic nature of an executive order restricting travel from Muslim countries—also applies to its prickly relationship with CNN.
On Wednesday, a day after Politico quoted an unidentified White House official as indicating that Trump’s minions were snubbing the cable news outlet by refusing to appear on CNN programs, White House press secretary Sean Spicer contradicted that report.
“They’re trying to cull CNN from the herd,” an unidentified CNN reporter told Politico, theorizing that “the White House is trying to punish the network and force down its ratings.”
Spicer told The Daily Beast that rumors of a CNN ban were inaccurate.
“Nope,” he text-messaged in response to a query about what Politico described as the Trump White House’s refusal “to send its spokespeople or surrogates onto CNN shows, effectively icing out the network from on-air administration voices.”
Spicer added: “I think we have folks on today.”
Indeed, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president specializing in national security and counterterrorism, appeared Wednesday afternoon on CNN’s The Lead, the weekday program anchored by Jake Tapper. Politico reported that the last time a Trump official appeared on CNN was on Jan. 11, when former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, now a senior presidential counselor, went on Anderson Cooper’s prime-time show, AC 360.
Spicer’s comment contradicting the Politico story may have reflected a particular delight the Trump White House seems to take in sowing confusion among members of the mainstream media—or at least keeping the journalists who cover them perpetually off-balance.
It came a only a couple of hours after Spicer’s boss once again trashed CNN as “fake news,” an epithet the then-president-elect unleashed during the Jan. 11 press conference in which he refused to take a question from CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
“I don’t watch CNN,” the cable news-obsessed president claimed on Wednesday morning, albeit not credibly, during a televised White House meeting with African-American supporters, marking the first day of Black History Month.
“I don’t like fake news,” Trump added.
In the Roosevelt Room—while cable outlets, including CNN, provided on-camera coverage of the get-together—Trump heaped praise on one of the meeting’s participants, CNN contributor Paris Dennard, for defending his White House and “doing very well in the hostile CNN community.”
In a dialogue with right-wing pundit Armstrong Williams, the president elaborated by repeating the charge leveled by his chief strategist, former Breitbart News chairman Stephen K. Bannon.
“A lot of the media is actually the opposition party,” Trump claimed. “It’s a disgrace—knowingly saying incorrect things. So it’s a very bad situation. But we seem to be doing well.”
Trump added: “But in the meantime, they have to straighten out their act. They’re very dishonest people.”
Wednesday’s presidential eruption was the latest anti-press salvo in what Trump has called “my running war with the media.”
On this past weekend’s installment of Fox News Sunday, White House aide Conway actually recommended that news organizations fire reporters and opinion writers who have criticized her boss.
“Not one network person has been let go,” she complained to host Chris Wallace. “Not one silly political analyst and pundit who talked smack all day long about Donald Trump has been let go. They are on panels every Sunday. They’re on cable news every day.”
Conway continued: “We know all their names. I’m too polite to call them by name. But they know who they are, and they’re all wondering, ‘Will I be the first to go?’”
CNN declined to comment on the report of a ban or the latest White House broadsides. But during a panel discussion last week at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker noted: “They are trying to set up this war, which is a terrible word to use. Wars have consequences that are real. We shouldn’t take the bait.”
Zucker added: “It is incredibly inappropriate to try to delegitimize the media and journalism the way they’re doing it. This is the most contentious relationship between the White House and the media since Richard Nixon. If they want to have that kind of relationship, OK—it’s their prerogative.”
While presidents through history have battled and belittled judgmental journalism outlets—and President Obama and his aides regularly slagged off Fox News as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party—Trump & Co.’s level of aggression echoes a time, nearly 50 years ago, when Nixon was placing journalists on his notorious “enemies list” while the White House was subjecting several reporters to IRS audits, phone taps, and FBI investigations.
But in the case of CNN, the president’s anger could also have a deeply personal origin—his feeling that Zucker, a longtime pal who as head of NBC greenlighted The Apprentice 14 years ago, has betrayed him with faultfinding coverage.
New York magazine recently reported that Trump has claimed to associates that he helped Zucker obtain his current job by singing his praises at a 2012 charity dinner to Phil Kent, who was then chief executive of CNN’s parent company, Turner Broadcasting.
A CNN executive told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Trump had nothing to do with Zucker getting his job, which he assumed in January 2013. The executive said Zucker had been in discussions for the position “for months” by the time of Trump’s encounter with Kent.
As for the Trump White House’s constant insults and threats of bans, “I think we can say this is the new normal,” said Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “CNN may or may not come back into White House favor. Maybe somebody else will be on the outs, but this is what we have to expect. They’ve proven to be quite impulsive and thin-skinned, and they react to news reports quickly.”
Responding to Conway’s “you’re fired!” suggestion, Pope said: “The first thing to remember is that Kellyanne Conway can’t fire a single reporter. She doesn’t have that power. Nor does the president. Nor does Steve Bannon… It’s just a continuation of the campaign, part of their ongoing strategy to use the press as a foil and play to their base… It’s important not to get dragged into the partisan fight the White House wants to have.”
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, said any White House prohibition of administration officials from appearing on CNN or any other outlet would be “an empty gesture.”
“My initial reaction is they’re not going to let Kellyanne or Sean talk to you people? Yeah, well, fine, we don’t care,” Dalglish said. “It will give CNN the opportunity to find some other people, and hear from some additional voices.”
Former Chicago Tribune editor James Warren, a media critic for the Poynter Institute and Vanity Fair, said the idea of such a ban is “stupid.”
“The parceling of officials to the TV folks is an old, old game and there are times when a White House gets pissed and just won’t play ball with somebody,” Warren emailed.
“But the egos of Conway and others won't be able to tolerate absence from a big dog like CNN for too long,” he predicted. “I've seen this show before. And, in the end, they'll exact a brief pound of flesh, then get back to playing the Washington media game. You can hear the Conway/Spicer/Zucker call already.”