Jen Psaki: Without free press, democracy dies

What is 'fair' media to Trump?_00013303
What is 'fair' media to Trump?_00013303

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Story highlights

  • Jen Psaki: The administration's approach to the press risks following the model of Russia
  • Despite disagreements, the Obama administration never excluded a set of reporters, she writes

Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator and spring fellow at the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, served as the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. Follow her: @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Is it typical to target specific media outlets and exclude them from attending a White House briefing? The short answer is no.

I spent almost eight years working for the Obama administration, in the White House as the deputy press secretary, deputy communications director, communications director, and as the spokesperson at the State Department. We were not always perfect about how we handled media relations.
We had our fair share of disagreements with reporters and even with entire media outlets like Fox News. Even the reported exclusion of Fox News in 2009 was related to network interviews by Ken Feinberg, an employee of the Treasury Department. It was not related to a briefing for the White House press corps. And in the end, an interview was offered to Fox. President Obama even did a lengthy interview with Chris Wallace during his final year in office.
    We also had rough press days when the front page of the newspaper was completely depressing and every story on cable news felt like a punch in the stomach.
    Jen Psaki
    We gave exclusive interviews and stories to reporters just as every White House does, but we never excluded a set of targeted reporters or any reporters from attending a briefing. Why? Because the back-and-forth, the arguments in briefings, are all a part of what you do in every White House, Democratic or Republican, to make the work of government accessible to the American people. It is part of democracy.
    When I was at the State Department, I was targeted by the Russian propaganda machine because I was one of the most visible faces of the United States opposition to Russia's illegal intervention in Crimea. They made up quotes I never said. RT, the international Russian propaganda television station, did entire segments about me on their version of Jimmy Fallon. The Russian government imposed my head on the body of Russian models in straight jackets.
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    And they made folk heroes out of the toughest reporters at the State Department in Russia.
    But I learned some of the most important lessons about the role of the media from these same reporters. Not only is being targeted by the Russian government a badge of honor, it highlighted what we have that they don't. A free press, and briefings in the White House, the State Department and the Department of Defense that are open to reporters from all different backgrounds, beliefs and even political persuasions.
    So why did the Trump team exclude targeted reporters from a briefing Friday?
    Here is my best educated guess:
    I think Trump told them to. He spent a large part of his speech at CPAC attacking the media. By most accounts he is obsessed with how he is covered -- from chyrons on cable news to the covers of magazines and tabloids. The President of the United States may be taking it personally when reporters write accurate and factual stories about him. And his reaction is to retaliate.
    He and his staff want to distract from the larger and more problematic story about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus attempting to pressure the FBI to make the coverage of the investigations into the contacts between associates of Trump and Russians go away.
    The Trump administration wants to continue to delegitimize institutions like the mainstream media. The more they can confuse the lines between facts and truth, legitimate and illegitimate sources of information, the more they will be able to brainwash the small segment of the public they care about reaching.
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    Is this the worst thing the Trump administration has done this week? Probably not.
    So why does it matter?
    Because the way an administration interacts with the free press in the United States, through briefings and access to reporters -- even those who have reported unflattering, harsh and sometimes unfair stories -- sends a message to the rest of the world about how much we value the freedom of the press. And Russia shouldn't be our role model.