Columnist Ketter

Bill Ketter

The era of firebrand White House journalists such as Helen Thomas, Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson is over, the victim of a president who built his fame on pomposity.

CNN reporter Jim Acosta tried vainly to carry on in the tradition of his pugnacious forerunners, but President Trump and his band of thin-skinned sidekicks balked. Leave the splash to the commander-in-chief.

A federal judge had to step in and order the White House to restore Acosta’s press pass, which it did with the caveat to establish rules of decorum and a punitive process for those who ignore them.

Last Monday, the White House announced the procedure for journalists questioning the president and other administration officials at the people’s house.

No more pestering press secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders for clarity at press briefings; no more follow-up questions at news conferences without “President May I” approval, no more refusing to relinquish the microphone, and, by implication, no more contentious grilling of Trump and his staff.

Reporters called upon are limited to “a single question” and if they don’t like the answer, too bad. They must politely pass the microphone and sit down. Only the president or other White House officials can authorize serial questions.

Failure to follow the rules risks revocation or suspension of the offender’s White House press pass. Furthermore, if the president and his aides feel they are subjected to unfair treatment, the show will shut down.

“I’ve told my people to just leave,” said Trump. “Stop the press briefing.”

There was no mention of curtailing the news-less White House press briefings by Sanders and other press aides, although that’s a possibility.

Nor were there expressions of discontinuing the infrequent Trump press conferences.

Acosta, whose combative style irks Trump, was put on special notice. The CNN reporter was told to shape up or he will again be shipped out.

“Should you refuse to follow these rules in the future,” a White House letter said, “we will take action in accordance with the rules set forth. The president is aware of this decision and concurs.”

Sanders said the rules were necessary to restore “professional norms” to news coverage, adding: “We believe the overwhelming majority of journalists covering the White House share that preference.”

Maybe so. But the news organizations of the White House reporters supported the CNN legal challenge to restore Acosta’s press pass. Even Fox News, the president’s pet network, joined the objectors.

CNN dropped its lawsuit against the president when the White House restored Acosta’s press credential without an expiration date. Yet the legal wrangling may not be over.

The White House Correspondents’ Association said it was blindsided by the Trump rules governing the deportment of its members, raising the specter of defiance if the White House tries to muzzle reporters.

“For as long as there have been White House press conferences, White House reporters have asked follow-up questions,” the association said. “We fully expect this tradition will continue.”

Press Secretary Sanders indicated the rules aim to ensure civility and discourage disruptive antics. She described permitted interaction between the White House and reporters as “natural give-and-take.”

She added, however, it is the duty of White House journalists to ensure that a strict code of conduct is not necessary to rein in bad behavior.

Trump made it personal in an interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday. “If he (Acosta) misbehaves,” said Trump, “we’ll throw him out or we’ll stop the news conference.”

And what about Trump’s conduct?

What should be his punishment if he chastises unfriendly reporters as terrible people, refers to political rivals as possessing low IQ, dismisses critics as losers, describes real news as fake news, and defames former presidents?

Voters will decide that in 2020.

Bill Ketter is senior vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com.

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