WASHINGTON — The head of a leading group that protects journalists around the world described Donald Trump's decision to define his first day by an attack on reporters as a disturbing precedent.
"To single out an individual reporter in that context is deeply chilling," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, adding that he'd expected the campaign tactic of attacks on the press to die down in the White House.
"Now he’s got the power to turn this obsession into policy, so now that’s the other shoe to drop," Simon said.
Trump used an appearance at the CIA to charge that members of the media are among the most "dishonest people in the world" to cheers in front of those assembled at Langley. He lambasted Time magazine's Zeke Miller for reporting, incorrectly, that the new administration had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. Miller quickly corrected himself publicly and apologized for his mistake.
"So Zeke, Zeke from Time magazine, writes the story about I took down — I would never do that, because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King," Trump said. "But this is how dishonest the media is. Now, big story. The retraction was, like, where? Was it in a line? Or do they even bother putting it in?"
Miller, who declined a request for comment to BuzzFeed News, did not write a story about the missing MLK Jr. bust but included it in a press pool report sent to reporters around the country. He pointed BuzzFeed News to his tweets, where he repeatedly apologized for his error and his colleagues in the press who relied on his report.
While the new press secretary, Sean Spicer, tweeted that he accepted Miller's apology, that didn't stop him from calling it "deliberately false reporting" that was "irresponsible and reckless." He then set his targets on the press reporting of the inauguration crowd size, as Trump did in his speech to the CIA, where he said it must have been a million or a million and a half people, despite shots of the crowd and National Mall that showed large swaths of empty space.
Spicer said, falsely, that Trump's inauguration was the first to feature coverings on the grass, claiming they made the crowd look smaller, and he cited statistics that 420,000 people took the Metro during Trump's inauguration, while only 317,000 did for Obama in 2013. In reality, the Washington Post reported that the numbers were 571,000 for Trump and 782,000 for Obama. The grass coverings were also in place for Obama's inauguration in 2013.
Trump's administration has already indicated an interest in going after the media, but in this instance they appear driven by a desire to minimize reporting they don't like.
Advocates for the free press were alarmed both by Trump's attack on an individual reporter and the introduction of a new set of "facts" approved and pushed by the administration.
Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that Miller made an unfortunate error and that it wasn't unusual for the aggrieved party — in this case the president of the United States — to respond, but said the more alarming part was that Spicer then came out with his own set of inauguration size numbers.
She said if the administration is "trying to twist the truth to make them look good or trying to spin facts so it supports or looks favorably on President Trump or his administration, as journalists we need to see through that."
While Walsh said journalists should not focus on the attacks, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Simon noted that the new controversy allowed the administration to draw attention from the huge crowds across the country and around the world for the Women's March that rose as a response to Trump's election.
And Simon said ignoring the attacks on the press is hard when the new administration has repeatedly put the media in its sights.
"Now he’s got power. What’s next?" Simon said.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at email@example.com.
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