A Seat at the Table, and CNN’s Embarrassing Presumption

By John F. Di Leo

November 14, 2018 A.D.

As tempers flare in Washington this November, with the dust settling on late-night midterm results and vote fraud occurs in broad daylight… we see an unusual dispute in the news.  This kerfuffle is between a major news source – CNN – and the White House. CNN’s reporter, Jim Acosta, refused to shut his mouth when his time was expired, and even shoved an intern out of the way for just doing her job.  The White House had it with him, and revoked his press credentials – not CNN’s, just his.

The reporter made more of the story than it was, which is perhaps unsurprising, but his employer also made more of it than it was, which should be shocking.  An employer should have a better handle on how to deal with an employee who goes over the line, embarrassing his employer and his profession on international television. CNN even filed a lawsuit against the administration, claiming that it was a violation of the First Amendment for the administration to kick a reporter out of a press conference.

The First Amendment?   Really, folks?

Usually, when someone in the news intentionally misinterprets a law, he picks some obscure statute, so the public can’t easily tell that his misinterpretation is hogwash.  But what American doesn’t know the wording of the First Amendment?  Consider:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

          – United States Constitution, Amendment I

Every American knows what this means:  It just says that the federal government must allow newspapers, radio and television stations, and online news sources to publish and/or broadcast the news.  That’s all.

  • It doesn’t mean the federal government has to fund their publication or broadcasting; the finance piece is up to the news source.
  • It doesn’t mean the federal government has to ensure that anyone actually consumes their news, by tuning in to their networks or buying their papers; marketing is up to the news source.
  • And it doesn’t mean the federal government has to provide them with an office, a desk, a front seat in a press conference, or a microphone. Where the reporter reports from is between him and his employer.  He can write from his office, a hotel room in the Caribbean, or his basement, if his publisher is okay with it.

But Jim Acosta and his employer, CNN, have taken on the rather outrageously entitled view that they have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to a seat at every White House press conference.

They don’t.

They can publish whatever they want, whenever they want, from outside the White House gates, but while they are in the White House, they have to obey the White House rules of decorum, which includes shutting their mouths after their time is up, and not taking up the time of other reporters with endless follow-ups, out of respect for the President and their fellow reporters (who deserve a chance to participate too)… and not shoving interns out of the way, out of respect, frankly, for fellow human beings in general.

The very idea that the First Amendment guarantees Jim Acosta a front seat at press conferences – and the right to be rude to all and sundry while there – is the kind of muddled legal interpretation only imaginable from the arrogant, addled minds of America’s east coast liberal elites, those whose “education” process was so full of left-wing propagandizing that most of what they think they know is absolutely, demonstrably, wrong, from matters of economics and culture to Constitutional law.

But a focus entirely on the merits – or lack thereof – of CNN’s frivolous lawsuit would be a missed opportunity.  This should be a teachable moment for America, since it provides us with a window into the way that the denizens of DC view their place in the world.

The United States of America have some 1300 daily newspapers.  Add those that publish less frequently (weeklies, twice-weekly, etc.), and there are thousands more.  Then there are over 30,000 radio and television stations broadcasting in the United States… not to mention the countless large and small magazines, and large and small internet webzines to which people more frequently turn for both news and opinion.

How many people do these myriads of businesses employ?  And how many would love a chance to have a seat at a White House press conference?

There is only room in the White House press conference room for a few dozen news outlets.  Some send one reporter, some send a reporter and cameraman, taking up two seats.  In a nation of 330 million people, hardly anyone gets a chance to participate directly in a White House press conference.  And thousands of other people, who are regularly shut out of participation, would love to.

Some seats are guaranteed – the big networks and the major newspapers, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, the New York Times and Washington Post – these are always there, taking up the first few rows.  Then there is flexibility in the back, as other journalists, foreign and domestic, come and go, requesting press credentials all the time, hoping to get their guy or gal into the room, and hoping against hope that when they do, they are lucky enough to be called on for a question.  It has the potential of putting a reporter on the map, and it has the potential of improving the reputation of the paper he or she represents.

The presumption of CNN and these other outlets is that they somehow have an undeniable right to a seat at this table.  They count on it – they have counted on it – AP and Reuters, Tribune Media and these other giants – they all rely on this omnipresent level of access as a fundamental element of their business model.

But do they have a right to it?  Do they truly own that guaranteed spot?

All companies have tangible assets that they rely on for their success.  They own manufacturing plants, patents and trademarks; they employ talented problem-solvers; they possess distribution networks.

The major American news outlets have these as well – talented employees, well-known brands, distribution for their content.  But should they be able to count that front seat in the White House press conferences as such a “tangible asset?”

Whether they should or not… it may be unsaid, but they do.  That seat at the White House press conferences is incredibly valuable to them, to differentiate themselves from the rest of the news outlets in this country.

AP, CNN, the New York Times – these companies build their very brands with the free advertising of being present, and being called on, in these publicly broadcast press conferences.

Is that right?

Let’s remember our history.  The United States government has been committed to formal opposition to monopoly treatment – to federally-supported monopoly treatment, anyway – for over a century.  Ever since the days of “Teddy the Trust Buster,” a constant effort of the federal government has been seeking out violators of the anti-trust laws, in order to keep the big guys from squeezing out the little guys unfairly.  Bigger may be better, sometimes, and the big will always have certain natural advantages over the small… but the government has no business picking sides… at least, not where it’s avoidable.

And so we do have partial exceptions to the anti-trust effort, where it’s unavoidable.  There are limited monopolies in the arena of public utilities, because only one company can run the power lines down the side of a road; only one company can manage the natural gas lines through a community.  But there are rules around it so that even these monopolies can’t go too far.

In comparison to big infrastructure issues like cross-country railroad tracks and power lines, a guaranteed front row seat at a press conference might seem to you and me like a small matter… but it’s not.

In every organization, there is a tendency to take the easy route over the difficult, and it’s easy for the press office to have a certain number of guaranteed credentials for all the conferences.  Perhaps the practice has never been seriously challenged; people just take it for granted that Big Media should always get the front half of the room.  But why?

A big reason – not the only reason, but a substantial one – for the power of big media is the fact that they have reporters onsite at all these press conferences.  Should the federal government really be giving them such a boost, to the exception of all their competitors?

Jim Acosta’s rude behavior may have given America an opportunity to reconsider its view of big media, outside the usual subject matter of press bias that governs such discussions.

In this case, it isn’t a matter of political bias at all, it’s a matter of arrogance, not only by the reporter himself, but by his employer, a near-monopoly with such an inflated view of its own importance that it thinks it has a right to send its rudest employee into the White House to abuse the Press Secretary, the President, innocent interns, and his fellow journalists with impunity.

Such arrogance provokes only one reasonable response in the American heart:  a righteous desire to take the fools down a notch.

But beyond that, it requires us to think of the thousands of journalism schools and college papers, the minor broadcast and print outlets, that never get a chance to participate in these press conferences.

If more space were freed up, by putting all the seats up to lottery instead of just a portion of them, clearing out the big guys every other conference or even more… what would change?

Sure, many would still be unable to participate.  Hundreds of journalism schools, minor papers and small stations still wouldn’t have the resources to send people to Washington very often.  But some could.  And some would.  More would attend; more would get a chance for that moment in the spotlight, more would get an opportunity to build their personal or corporate brands, as Big Media has been doing for generations.

But more importantly , think of what it would do for the country, if there were more broad-based coverage at these conferences.  Imagine if we heard questions asked by fresh voices – perhaps different questions, posed by people who didn’t follow the scripted talking points of the east coast elite.  We might hear different subjects brought up; we might learn about something else besides the Mueller investigation and the President’s twitter account every day.

And finally, the government would be on record taking its rule seriously – the long-standing and quintessentially American rule about not intentionally supporting monopolies. Way back in the 1770s, our nation was founded on our opposition to the corrupt practices of the British government’s authorized monopolies – the factors in the London trading houses, the British East India (tea) Company, and the like.

In a nation that desperately needs not only a stronger independent media but a stronger small business community as well, this small advance, this critical point of order, might be the most important aspect of such a change to us all.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker, trade compliance trainer, writer and actor.  His column is regularly found in Illinois Review.

This column was originally published in Illinois Review, here.