Brian Karem hard pass Playboy

'Don’t Ruffle Feathers' Is Not an Acceptable Standard

Brian Karem reflects on the White House's interest in revoking his hard pass


Donald Trump lies about nearly everything. But on one issue, he has always told us the truth: He is the most transparent president ever. You merely need to listen and watch him. Believe your ears and eyes. His racist, nationalist rhetoric and his divisive speech has split the country apart, promoting violence and destroying the fabric of our nation.

His slurred speech on Monday morning from the White House condemned racism, but his rallies do otherwise. He pushed back against hatred, but has openly supported physical violence against a variety of people he does not like, including reporters. After back-to-back shootings over the weekend, we are left pondering the unfathomable: Did our president’s rhetoric contribute to the fomentation of hatred and isolation that led to at least one of those mass shootings?

Those who watch and listen know the president has nothing but his self-interest to guide him, and he uses his base, some of it consisting of racists and nationalists, to further his own cause. The simple answer then is an obvious yes to the previous question.

In the last two years, in order to silence critics and to keep people guessing, he has hired a group of hucksters who wouldn’t be able to cut the mustard in a Barnum and Bailey sideshow to dazzle us with blue smoke and mirrors. His supporters include those who’ve violated the Hatch Act, spew “alternative facts,” heckle those who disagree or question the president and those who violated laws. Those who push back are called “rude.” Those who ask questions are isolated. Organizations, countless newspapers and broadcast companies that challenge the president are vilified (from Patagonia to Playboy magazine).

An investigation by Robert Mueller led to indictments and convictions of some of Trump’s closest allies. It also led to the indictment of two dozen Russians who interfered in our 2016 election. To keep those facts from gaining traction, Trump called the investigation a “witch hunt” even though he also leveled sanctions on some of the Russians indicted in the probe. Trump continues his battle against those who write about those facts as “fake news.” He also calls the media “the enemy of the people” while he takes every opportunity to speak from both sides of his mouth.

His strategy to demean, belittle and marginalize the press comes with many tactical applications. He doesn’t do many solo news conferences. He has only appeared in the Brady Briefing Room once. He has canceled most briefings from other administration officials there. Trump prefers to marginalize the press and either limits his remarks to a small pool of reporters during White House events or he makes reporters pile into a cramped space on the South Lawn in order to shout questions at him he can ignore as he stalks the rope line pretending he can't hear with Marine One idling in the background. He does these 10 to 15 minute meetings with the press whenever he leaves the Oval Office or the residence via helicopter. It makes the press appear ravenous and rude while it gives him the appearance of aloof control. It also gives the president a chance to claim he’s more accessible than any other president, and while it’s a half-truth, that’s twice as much as we usually get from him.

Reporters who want access to the president and otherwise would have no access—since there are no briefings —get a shot at the president, provided he hears and wants to answer their question. It’s a bribe. He rarely answers direct questions. He merely pivots to say something to further his agenda, not provide us with information. Even when he calls on someone he doesn’t like, he does so for his base. He can point at the few who push back and use them to validate his claims of rudeness and disrespect. Trump’s tactics also include going after individual reporters and making an example of them. He targeted Jim Acosta from CNN because the CNN correspondent often asks him tough questions and refuses to back down from Trump’s bombast. Last November, in a rare news conference in the East Room, Trump and Acosta engaged in a battle, and after a young intern tried to grab the microphone from Acosta, the Trump administration tried to pull his hard pass. Acosta was rude and unprofessional, according to Trump. This didn’t stand, of course, so Trump went back to calling out individual reporters, including April Ryan. Trump called her a loser.

But after more than eight months, the Trump team again circled back around to wanting to pull a press pass. We all knew this would happen. The goal is to keep the press docile. Don’t rock the boat or you will lose access. Don’t make waves. Don’t ask hard questions. Be quiet and obedient.

This time Trump decided to yank mine.

I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last.

Trump doesn’t want us reporting the news and doesn’t want us asking him questions. He wants us participating in his reality show—eager lemmings swallowing and spreading his infotainment across the countryside in a display of pageantry that is the antithesis of free thought, a free press and the foundations of our government. Or he wants us as foils; when it gets too real, he wants us gone.

We are supposed to be contentious, Mr. President. If you can’t stand the heat, dear Donald, stay out of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the public view of presidential coverage depends almost entirely on where you get your news. I’ve seen questions asked of the president that, if are by CNN, are viewed one way and if asked by FOX, viewed another. The president has been successful in redirecting many into believing there is a particular axe to grind by reporters depending on where they work. The fact is most reporters I’ve seen in the White House are merely trying to do their job.
I’m often asked why we don’t refuse to cover what the president says? Or why don’t we just walk out in unison?
For the record, they are a far more docile lot now than when I first walked into the White House, in 1986, and witnessed Helen Thomas bang on the press secretary’s door and demand Larry Speakes make an appearance. Even so, we do not want to be a part of the story. It is the president who has put us in that uncomfortable position.

While the president holds the power, he has tried to change the narrative to instigate anger against the press by convincing people we hold power. Our only power is in asking questions, providing the news and offering opinions based on our proximity to the president. It is our job to do so. There are many who agree with the president’s policies, many who do not and there is a place for all of them at the table. Neither side, or the many of us in the middle, are the enemy of the people. We are the people.

Many voters view us as a monolithic structure. I’m often asked why we don’t refuse to cover what the president says? Or why don’t we just walk out in unison? First of all, it’s my job to tell you what the president says—and in these op-ed pieces, interpret what he says. Secondly, you could never get the press to do anything in unison. We’re a fraternity of competing interests, not a monolithic power structure. The press? We’re the Animal House. Still, as Dan Rather told the Boston Herald in 1991, “There is no joy in saying this, but beginning in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization of institution that you cover.”

Helen Thomas warned me of this early in my career. She said if I were looking for friends, I should seek another profession. Meanwhile, the president would love to make taking my press pass all about me. It is not. It is about the First Amendment. It is easy to say you believe in a free press while you attack individual reporters who you claim are rude or impertinent. It is easy, but it is never true. It is an excuse to avoid the greater truth.

As for the press, we should all hang together against this menace, or as a wiser man once noted, we’ll surely all hang separately. Critical thinking must endure, independent of party and politics. Divide and conquer? That’s Dean Wormer’s way—and the president’s way.

Meanwhile, there is a two-month old baby alive in El Paso who will never know the woman who gave that child life or that she used her own body as a shield to save it.

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