Riding the daily tsunami of the national news cycle for the past two years has been a little like being seated in the middle of one of those central command control rooms you see in action (or disaster) movies, where a national security officer is monitoring a wall of 75 screens with live TV feeds to keep tabs on developments in real time.
Take Wednesday, for example. The country was just starting to digest the results and divine the meaning of the midterm elections, which saw Republicans widen their majority in the Senate while losing the House to Democrats. Some key races, like the one for governor of Alabama, were still too close to call and had no declared winner. Also at the state level, Democrats increased their control, with New York state as a prime example. The state Senate flipped, with candidates including Katonah’s Peter Harckham, who faced Republican incumbent Terrence Murphy in the 40th district, winning handily, giving Democrats the keys to all three chambers of government. Voters of all political persuasions were engaged, with turnout far higher than normal for the midterm cycle. Nationally, about half of all eligible voters participated, numbering 100 million. There are probably dozens of other important takeaways from the midterms, which we’ll leave to the political experts and analysts to examine.
Now, back to Wednesday. We were still finding our way through the post-election haze when our phones flashed with another breaking news alert. We learned that the attorney general, who is responsible for overseeing the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election meddling, was fired by the president and replaced with the Department of Justice’s chief of staff, who has been a vocal critic of that probe. Suddenly there were more headlines to digest, more questions to ponder about the key personnel move. (What was the president’s intention? How will it affect the future of the investigation?)
Meanwhile, another drama was playing out in two acts, with the president cast in his usual roles as leading man and angry protagonist. It might have slipped under your radar, but it shouldn’t. It should concern every American who cares about protecting the First Amendment and a free press.
During a 90-minute post-election news conference Wednesday at the White House, the president crossed a line displaying his contempt for reporters asking questions he doesn’t like. He tangled with his CNN nemesis, Jim Acosta. He called him “rude, a terrible person.” Yamiche Alcindor, a respected journalist who now works for PBS, tried to ask a question about whether the president’s use of the term “nationalist,” which he used at recent campaign rallies to describe himself, was giving license to white supremacists. He interrupted her, failed to answer, and called her question “racist.”
The put-downs and personal attacks, beamed in real time around the world, were business as usual for the press-bashing president. But then something else happened later Wednesday that was truly chilling: the White House revoked Jim Acosta’s press credentials.
Its cover story was a lie. The press secretary cited as grounds the reporter’s inappropriate touching of a young woman, a White House intern, who was instructed to take the mic out of Acosta’s hand during his testy exchange with the president. Video footage showed nothing of the sort happened. “Pardon me, ma’am,” the reporter said to the intern, as he tried to hold onto the mic to finish asking another question.
Mr. Acosta returned to the White House that evening to deliver a live report for the 8 p.m. news. He was barred access at the security booth inside the front gate and directed to turn in his press pass.
At his final campaign rally the night before the midterms, the president invited Fox News host and presidential confidante Sean Hannity to join him on the stage. Two days later, the White House pulled the plug on CNN’s senior White House reporter.
Who will be next? Are we living in a country where the president can pick and choose which members of the press have access based on the questions they ask him or the political leanings of the news organizations they work for? One of those 75 TV screens in the command center wall should be flashing red with those questions.
— This editorial originally appeared in SI Communications’ Record-Review.