I was honored to attend the New England First Amendment Coalition Awards Luncheon on Friday, February 24th in Boston. I was at the event courtesy of Emerson College and attended with several journalism students. We had no idea an event to celebrate those who had fought to protect the First Amendment would happen as the White House was taking another step to block the free press from doing their job.
The event was taking place as the White House chose to exclude several members of the press corps from a daily briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. When I first heard about the incident, I thought there had to be more to the story. There have been times when a Governor or other elected official has chosen to meet with select members of the media to get their message across. Even President Obama would hold these “off the record” meetings. This was not an off the record meeting. This was the announced daily briefing which is normally opened to the press. It was held off camera, in an office and media outlets that had been critical were not allowed to attend.
I thought it was important to read articles by those who were allowed in, and those who were not. Breitbart News using the decision by President Obama to meet with reporters “off the record” and in private as a defense. However, did comment later in the article that banning reporters from the press briefing was unusual and clarification of the decision was pending.
CNN which was blocked from the briefing released a strong statement calling the move unacceptable and vowing to continue coverage of the Trump Administration
The New York Times also responding calling the move disturbing and unprecedented.
The Washington Post, who was at the “gaggle” went more in-depth. In fact, the report mentioned President Trump served as an anonymous source himself in several stories in the early 1990s
So what does this have to do with a luncheon in Boston? Quite a bit, since coverage of the White House and President Trump seemed to be on the mind of Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist for the Washington Post. She received the Stephen Hamblett 2017 First Amendment Award for her work as a journalist to hold public bodies accountable. Her speech held the room as she talked about the rights of the press in the age of President Trump.
She added President Trump’s decision to blacklist media outlets during the campaign and calling the press “the enemy” shows he has no understanding of the role a free press plays in America. She referred to Senator John McCain’s comments about the issue on NBC’s Meet the Press where he said suppressing the media is how dictators get started.
She expressed concern over President Trump taking aim at “leakers” saying should he chose to prosecute those who provide information there are no national shield laws to protect them. Reminding those of us in the audience that the Obama administration “went down that road several times and backed off.” She questioned if the Trump Administration would do the same.
Sullivan did say she remains hopeful about the role of journalists in America, and new polls prove the reporting is more important than ever.
Sullivan sent a message to all of us in the room, ranging from accomplished journalists to college students, that seeking the truth is more important than ever. Stating “I’m more convinced every day that most Americans know very well that just as the First Amendment protects us, we must return the framers great favor and protect it. We do that by insisting on the truth, seeking it relentlessly and standing up for those who provide it.”
It is now up to us, journalists, to ensure the First Amendment does not get squashed. We need to ask the tough questions and demand answers, on every level of government. Learn about the Freedom of Information Act and how it applies in your state, fight to improve transparency. There are those who do not believe the media is doing its job and creating “fake news.” The only way to combat that attack is the truth. The students in attendance seemed to leave with a strong resolve to fight for he truth.