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3Qs: Donald Trump’s acrimonious relationship with the press

Donald Trump’s recent move to revoke the press credentials for The Washington Post will backfire on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, says Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Here, he weighs in on Trump’s hostile relationship with the so-called Fourth Estate, compares Trump’s animosity toward the press to that of President Richard Nixon, and recalls his own reporting problems in China.

In a statement, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron noted that the paper will “continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along—honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly.” Will the paper’s lack of access affect its ability to get out the news, or might it present new opportunities to cover the campaign in a different and potentially more creative way?

Banning the Post from his rallies can only hurt Trump. Most stories on rallies report simply what the candidate said and maybe include some audience reaction. Reporters are resourceful and they will get the news. The danger for Trump is that this controversy distracts people from his political message—unless of course he sees a political advantage in attacking the press, which I suspect he does. The Post is one of the best newspapers in the country and Marty Barron is one of the best and most ethical editors. He was, let’s remember, the editor who drove the “Spotlight” investigation at The Boston Globe.

In a press conference last month, Trump noted that his approach to the press would stay the same if he were elected president. “Yeah, it is going to be like this,” said Trump, whose campaign has also banned the likes of Politico, Buzzfeed, and The Daily Beast. “You think I’m going to change? I’m not going to change.” Can you recall another political figure whose relationship with the press was so toxic?

Richard Nixon. Nixon made no bones about it—he hated the press, made life difficult for reporters, put members of the press on his “enemies list.” He tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers in the Times. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, denounced the press in a famous 1970 speech as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Recordings of Nixon’s White House conversations are filled with his attacks on the press and disparaging comments about them. In the end, the press still uncovered his crimes. Nixon’s hatred of the press reflected his paranoia and contempt for all his opponents and for the rule of law. If you want to control a free press, chances are you want to curb other kinds of free speech or criticism as well.

The same is true for Trump. I took my journalism class to New Hampshire in February to cover a Trump rally and was shocked when, a few minutes before Trump appeared, an announcer came on over the loudspeaker declaring that, “while Mr. Trump respects the First Amendment,” he wouldn’t tolerate any cat-calls or jeers. If anyone started protesting during his speech, the announcement explained, the crowd should surround the protester and security would eject him. In all my years covering campaigns I never encountered anything like that. As we have seen, Trump rallies are now places where protesters are routinely ejected and violent clashes are now taking place. Reporters are an early warning system. History shows that politicians who turn against the media and cut off their access don’t stop there.

Have your press credentials ever been revoked? If so, what happened, and how did you resolve the issues?

It is revealing that the only place that I have run into problems with press credentials has been China, where the Chinese government monitors the overseas and domestic press closely and tries to exert control by approving and rejecting reporter visas and residence permits. That creates huge obstacles to reporters trying to do their jobs, especially when it comes to holding the Chinese government and its leaders accountable. Sound familiar?

In 1989, I was sent to China by The Boston Globe to report on the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. The Chinese refused to give me a reporting visa so I flew to Hong Kong and entered as a tourist. When they asked my occupation, I put down “English teacher.” I think the Chinese visa officials in Hong Kong knew that I was a journalist; many of them were angry about the massacre and wanted it reported.

From 2002 to 2005, I was based in Beijing as the China bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. The Chinese refused to issue visa for some of our reporters whose earlier stories about China they didn’t like. At one point we feared they might shut down the Journal office because of our aggressive reporting on the SARS outbreak, which China was covering up. In the end, they backed off, though we had to be careful we didn’t imperil our Chinese sources who were giving us information. A few years ago when I was an executive editor at Bloomberg News, the Chinese refused to issue visas for me, other editors, and a number of our reporters because they were angry about Bloomberg’s prize-winning investigations of the hidden wealth of China’s top leaders. It made covering China much more difficult—which was what the Chinese intended. The New York Times has faced the same obstacles.