Trump, CNN and the First Amendment

James Freeman on the CNN lawsuit against the Trump administration:

Here’s how the lawsuit describes the scene as the President showed up to share his thoughts on Tuesday’s midterm elections:

President Trump delivered opening remarks and then invited questions from the media in attendance. Acosta, sitting in the front row, raised his hand. President Trump called on Acosta to “[g]o ahead” with a question. Acosta was one of the first reporters the President called on for questions.
Speaking through a hand-held microphone, as did all the White House journalists who asked questions, Acosta asked a question about one of President Trump’s statements during the midterm campaign—namely, whether a caravan making its way to the United States from Central America constitutes “an invasion” of the country, a significant feature of the President’s messaging during the just-ended campaign.
This is not an accurate rendering of what happened. A video recording of the event shows that after four reporters took their turns asking questions, the President called on Mr. Acosta, who made it clear that he would not simply be asking questions and seeking information as reporters do but intended to provide a rebuttal to recent comments made by the President. “I wanted to challenge you on one of the statements that you made in the tail end of the campaign—in the midterms,” said the CNN commentator.

Mr. Acosta mentioned Mr. Trump’s characterization of the immigrant caravan making its way through Mexico as an “invasion.” At this point Mr. Acosta did not ask a question but simply issued a declaration. “As you know Mr. President, the caravan was not an invasion. It’s a group of migrants moving up from Central America towards the border with the U.S.,” said the CNN correspondent.

So instead of simply serving as a reporter Mr. Acosta chose to offer commentary—and according to standard dictionaries he was wrong. The large group of immigrants had crossed illegally into Mexico and plainly intended to illegally enter the U.S.

Mr. Acosta may think that an invasion must include a military force but Mr. Trump’s use of the word is common. Merriam-Webster defines invade as “to enter for conquest or plunder,” but also “to encroach upon” or “infringe.” Other dictionaries have similar definitions, such as “to intrude” or “violate.”

Having wrongly asserted that the caravan could not be called an invasion and wrongly asserted that Mr. Trump knew he was saying something untrue, Mr. Acosta then asked why Mr. Trump had done so and if he had “demonized” immigrants. Yes, Mr. Acosta was now asking a question, but doing so while demanding that the President accept a false premise.

Mr. Acosta then interrupted the President as he tried to answer. Then Mr. Acosta editorialized again:

“Your campaign had an ad showing migrants climbing over walls and so on. But they’re not going to be doing that.”
Is Mr. Acosta now a spokesman for the caravan? After another interruption, Mr. Acosta insisted on continuing to talk after the President called on a reporter. Then Mr. Acosta fended off a White House intern as she attempted to retrieve the microphone to allow others to ask questions.

The First Amendment prevents the President or anyone else in the federal government from restricting the ability of citizens to report and publish. Does it also require the President to listen to ill-informed lectures for as long as the lecturers choose to speak? Obviously if everyone had the right to refuse to surrender the microphone at press conferences the result would be fewer members of the press corps having an opportunity to ask questions, not more.

But there’s something special about Mr. Acosta and about CNN, at least according to the lawsuit. The suit argues that special White House access not available to the general public is “essential” for reporters like Mr. Acosta, and that CNN is suffering from his absence, even though many other CNN staff still enjoy such access.

There are no doubt myriad online producers and reporters who would love to have the privileges enjoyed by CNN and its star commentator. But are Mr. Acosta and his network entitled to such privileges?

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