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Trump, Clinton and the “Free Press”

The Washington Post is complaining that Donald Trump has banned its reporters from his campaign events. Mid-way into its Tuesday story about the flap it also noted that Trump had already banned or restricted a dozen other publications, including Politico, Univision and the Huffington Post. In a video, Post editor Marty Baron denounced the bans as a “repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.” But if press freedom has been offended, why wasn’t the banning of its competitors also big news in the Post?

The D.C. daily, its peers and all journalism schools maintain that politicians and officials are duty-bound to provide “access” to the press. But nothing in our laws requires pols and office holders to do that. If providing access is a duty, it is only a moral one. Since when were candidates, office holders or the press paragons of virtue?

The Post laments that reporters from some of the chastised publications have had to attend Trump events on general admission tickets. Yet neither the Constitution nor any law requires special access for the press. The obligation, where any exists, is to the citizenry, the electorate as a whole.

The Tuesday Post story on the flap also noted that a Politico reporter was ousted from an ostensibly public Trump rally. Yet as a candidate, Trump need not admit everyone to his events, and even the President, in drawing a list of the White House Press Corps, excludes reporters. An obligation to admit everyone would require presidents to stage press conferences in auditoriums or on the National Mall—and certainly our Founders wouldn’t have required anything so populist as that!

Officeholders must provide copies of certain documents to the press, but access to candidates and public officials in the flesh is usually the result of an unvoiced trade: “fairness” in exchange for access. But somebody, either the press or its subjects, must determine what fairness means. Trump is a deal-maker. In excluding reporters, he is bargaining for coverage more favorable to him. His negotiations are like those that all bosses, including press bosses, have with non-union employees. Trump has merely told the Post “You’re fired!”

In his brash “wisdom” Trump is tempting the Post and the Dozen Others to cover him as the African-American, Mexican-American, anti-war, gay, labor and socialist press have traditionally covered the rich and the powerful—as outsiders. Access to information about magnates of all kinds always has been indirect for the opposition press. Its organs have had to find whistle-blowers, to follow rumors, to filch documents, to infiltrate companies, to get information without the blessings of subjects who are of a higher order: to investigate!

This kerfuffle, like most conflicts, will turn on the basis of fear. Either our political and economic rulers must fear the press, or the press must fear them. Trump has declared war on the long-standing coziness of elite reporters and their sources.

Trump is not alone in snubbing the press. For months Hillary Clinton has refused to provide transcripts of her speeches to Goldman-Sachs, arguing that those meetings were private events, as if money–a speaker’s fee–could turn public affairs private. Trump has merely extended that logic to fee-less rallies.

Certainly, more than a handful of people know what Clinton said to Wall Street, but the press hasn’t scoured financial directories to find informants, nor made an issue of her refusal to cooperate. Trump’s regard for the press is deplorable, but when will the Post expose Clinton as an enemy of the “free and independent press”?

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Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.

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