May 20-27 was a week that left journalists, world leaders and many Americans shaking their heads.
By Lena Williams
Indeed, the week of May 20-27 may well be remembered for a series of incidents that either emboldened or undermined the rights of a free press, along with Americans’ right to know.
Donald Trump made history by becoming the first American president to travel abroad, attend a NATO meeting, and participate in a G-7 summit without holding a press conference.
That same week, on May 24, the New York Times was accused by British intelligence of compromising an open investigation into the bombing attack in Manchester by publishing several photographs showing the makeshift shrapnel, shredded blue backpack and lead acid battery used by the bomber.
That evening May 24, Greg Gianforte, the Republican House candidate in Montana, was charged with assault after he “body slammed” a reporter for the Guardian newspaper, who was asking him to comment on the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the House’s proposed health-care bill. Gianforte won the election despite his actions.
These events may say as much about the state of American journalism as it does Americans’ ambivalence of and antipathy towards the people whose job it is to inform them of their leaders’ actions.
When the president of the United States can travel to five different countries over a nine-day period, meet with foreign leaders, sign a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, let slip that he had divulged highly-classified information he had share with Russian diplomats, and leave the Group of Seven leaders wondering where he stood on climate change without so much as accounting for his actions, it’s not the media that loses, it’s Americans people.
Think about it! Citizens of the seven other member nations of the G-7 – France, Germany, England, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada – all got to hear their leaders answer questions about the May 26 summit, but not citizens of the United States. Did Americans not deserve to hear from their leader?
Instead, the Trump administration opted for an off-camera press briefing with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. The briefing was held at the same time other world leaders were holding their post-summit press conferences. I don’t know about my fellow journalists, but under this “America First” administration, I took that to mean that Americans should not worry themselves with international affairs.
Several journalists took to Twitter to vent their frustration.
Carol Lee, the White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal tweeted: “Press conferences aren’t off camera. Trump hasn’t had a single one on a nine-day foreign trip, only G-7 leader not to.”
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and anchor, tweeted: “Not a news conference!! No cameras and 1st POTUS to avoid reporters since these summits started decades ago.”
Cohn tried to downplay Trump’s refusal to give a press briefing or lengthy interviews with journalists during his foreign trip by saying the president’s busy schedule wouldn’t allow for it.
“The president has been dealing with foreign leaders, he’s been dealing with jobs, he’s been dealing with economic growth, he’s been dealing with diplomacy, he’s been dealing with unfair trade, he’s been dealing with Paris climate, he’s been dealing with China,” Cohn told reporters, according to the Washington Post. “His agenda has been overflowing. He’s been fully consumed with what’s going on here.”
And the media and the public is supposed to believe that leaders around the world like British Prime Minster Theresa May, who was dealing with a recent terrorist attack and threats of another, negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union, facing upcoming Parliamentary elections and climate change issues, didn’t have a busy schedule.
The president did, however, find the time to monitor the hotly-contested congressional race in Montana and comment on it during the G-7 summit, calling Gianforte’s victory “a great win in Montana.”
Trump also recorded a robocall during the week in support of Gianforte, urging the people of Montana “to get to the polls and vote for Greg.”
Gianforte will take his oath of office while facing assault charges after he body slammed Ben Jacobs, a political reporter for the Guardian, who asked him to comment on the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the House’s proposed health-care bill.
Gianforte told Jacobs he would talk to him later. When Jacobs pressed for an answer, Gianforte responded: “I’m sick and tired of you guys.” He then threw Jacobs to the floor, breaking his eye glasses. Gianforte’s staff issued a statement blaming Jacobs, alleging the reporter had shoved him.
But a Fox News crew that witnessed the incident and had videotape of it placed the blame on Gianforte. Later, Gianforte apologized.
Some Trump supporters and conservative news pundits like Rush Limbaugh said the reporter acted “disrespectful and insolent,” had egged or baited Gianforte and deserved what he got.
And then there was the international incident provoked by the New York Times, which published photographs of materials found at the scene of bombing in the May 24 editions of the paper and on its website. The Times said the evidence was photographed and distributed by British authorities.
The Brits cried foul, accusing the U.S. of leaking the material. British authorities claimed the publishing of the materials could impede their investigation into the deadliest terrorist attack in Britain in more than a decade.
May confronted President Trump over the leaks during the NATO meetings. Trump has called for a Justice Department investigation into the alleged leaks.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, defended the decision saying the information was not “highly classified,” that there was a “public benefit” to telling people how terrorists work and that it did not violate anyone’s privacy.
But hundreds of readers begged to differ.
The decision to publish the material generated hundreds of emails from readers expressing disappointment and anger.
“The New York Times has shared evidence that is meaningful to people who have aided and abetted these terrorists and may help them evade capture,” wrote Bradley Tice of Orange, Connecticut.
Charles Worringham of Queensland, Australia wrote: “I cannot immediately see any such justification for the NYT’s rapid publication of photos of the Manchester bombing that have apparently been leaked by US officials, while police investigations are still at an early stage and their publication could potentially hinder or disrupt those investigations.”
As a journalist, I support The Times’ right to publish the photographs. As an American, I also know that if The Guardian or Daily Mail published information provided by US intelligence officials to their counterparts in Britain, I might feel differently.
The week that was should cause us all to pause and carefully reflect on our perspectives, examine our points of views, ask ourselves where we stand on our Constitutional right to a free press and whether and when we must hold the press and our political leaders accountable for their actions.