free press

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) is too busy condemning the comedian who roasted the Trump administration to notice the administration’s dangerous new attack on the free press.

Following comedian Michelle Wolf’s 20-minute roast of both the Trump administration and the media outlets present at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, Very Serious Journalists like the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell clutched their pearls at Wolf’s ribbing of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who took President Trump’s place on the dais (“she burns facts and uses the ash to create the perfect smoky eye”), with Mitchell and MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski both demanding an apology:

Following the outrage by elite beltway journalists, the WHCA’s verified Twitter account issued a statement by WHCA president Margaret Talev condemning Wolf for not being civilized enough in her roast of the Trump administration and the beltway press.

“Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting, and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” Talev stated. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

This statement came hours after a report BuzzFeed News published on Sunday afternoon about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein secretly revising U.S. Attorneys’ manuals over the past several months. These manuals are typically used to guide both U.S. Attorneys and the federal prosecutors working in their offices on top priorities and policies by the current administration, as well as to give legal guidance on all of the various types of cases that may end up in the DOJ’s hands.

While the revisions have been both significant and anodyne, one of the most alarming revisions was Rosenstein’s removal of a section called “Need for Free Press and Public Trial,” which has been in U.S. Attorneys’ manuals since at least 1988. The section reads:

“Likewise, careful weight must be given in each case to the constitutional requirements of a free press and public trials as well as the right of the people in a constitutional democracy to have access to information about the conduct of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and courts, consistent with the individual rights of the accused. Further, recognition should be given to the needs of public safety, the apprehension of fugitives, and the rights of the public to be informed on matters that can affect enactment or enforcement of public laws or the development or change of public policy.”

The removal of that section is particularly worrisome when combined with President Trump’s open disdain for the free press, once calling the media “the enemy of the American people.” It suggests that under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice will have little regard for the First Amendment’s protections that allow the media to do its job without intrusion, and will likely not be cooperative with journalists seeking further transparency about DOJ practices in the future.

Rosenstein’s changes the U.S. Attorneys’ manuals also instruct federal prosecutors to report “any contact with a member of the media about a DOJ matter” to the DOJ, while reiterating that classified information is to not be shared with anyone who doesn’t have authorization to see that material. The manual also points prosecutors to federal protections for whistleblowers, encouraging DOJ employees to keep agency complaints internal rather than share them with the press.

The WHCA’s verified Twitter account didn’t acknowledge the DOJ’s removal of the “free press” section of U.S. Attorneys’ manuals until 17 hours after the statement condemning Michelle Wolf.

 

Michael Boone is a freelance journalist and columnist writing about politics, government, race, and media. He graduated from Texas Southern University’s School of Communication, and lives in Houston’s Third Ward.

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