Our opinion: Trump war on press is war on Americans

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The role of the press in the United States vis a vis those who have been given political power is an adversarial one, in the constructive sense that it exists as a proxy through whom the people are able to hold their leaders accountable. With some notable exceptions like Fox News, the press is not meant to be a propaganda arm of the government.

The function of questioning and challenging the chief executive has fallen to the White House press corps — which has acted as a raucous, skeptical and pugnacious irritant to presidents throughout history. Presidents themselves or their spokespersons have sought in the past to shape the contours of this contentious but necessary relationship as best they could, but the Trump administration's attempt to impose arbitrary rules of engagement upon the media assigned to cover it crosses a new line.

At a Nov. 7 news conference, CNN's chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, engaged in a heated exchange with President Donald Trump over the topic of the migrant caravan making its way toward America's southern border, asking if Mr. Trump were demonizing these people by terming their quest for asylum an "invasion." Mr. Trump, who may or may not have called upon Mr. Acosta — long a thorn in his side — in order to deliver a scolding, called him a "rude, terrible person."

The White House, which then accused Mr. Acosta of "placing his hands" on a young female intern who had been dispatched to pry the microphone away from him, revoked Mr. Acosta's press pass as punishment, which led to a lawsuit by CNN and a federal injunction temporarily restoring Mr. Acosta's status. Ultimately, the White House backed down over the Acosta incident, but not before issuing a set of "rules" dictating how journalists should conduct their professional inquiries when addressing the president or his minions in the future, under pain of similar consequences.

The first of these rules is the most egregious: "A journalist called upon to ask a question will ask a single question and then will yield the floor to other journalists." Upon examination, this dictum — thinly disguised as a mechanism to maintain order — is clearly designed to protect Mr. Trump from the time-honored tradition of asking follow-up questions, where a presidential statement can be immediately challenged by the journalist asking the question.

When a government figure lies as regularly and shamelessly as does Mr. Trump, practically every statement he utters begs a challenge so the press — and therefore the public — might have some chance of getting at the truth. Without such follow-ups, every lie becomes accepted fact, and the press corps, rather than acting as a critical component of a healthy democracy, is turned into a stenographic pool.

An example is the president's contention in the Acosta episode that the approach of the asylum-seekers constituted enough of a national threat to justify the deployment of active military to the border. Had Mr. Acosta and his colleagues not pressed the issue with questioning, we would never have determined that our armed forces had been intentionally misused as part of a brazen political stunt, which is an egregious abuse of power.

The new rules are clearly an overreach of the president's authority, and the Trump administration has promulgated them to see what it can get away with. In response, members of the press corps should vigorously push back against them by continuing to repeat the same follow-up question asked by a correspondent who has had the mic taken away, until it is properly answered.

Moreover, it is time the president understood some salient facts: The White House is the people's house, not his. He occupies it at their pleasure. The White House press corps is an independent body whose purpose it is to question their leader on behalf of those same people. The U.S. Constitution specifically states that Mr. Trump has no authority to regulate its activities. To assert otherwise is an abuse of presidential power. This is a line that Mr. Trump must not be allowed to cross under any circumstances, for there is no going back.

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