It is a sobering experience to tour the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, where John McCain and other POWs were imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War. What you see is a sanitized and glorified version of reality, a display touting how well American prisoners were treated.
The “Vietnamese government created the best living conditions that they could for the US pilots,” reads the museum display that includes photos of fun activities. “They had a stable life during their temporary detention periods.”
This is what it looks like when messaging is controlled by government, when no free press exists, when critical journalists are silenced, when access to some websites is cut off.
Vietnam does not grant its citizens the rights we have in our First Amendment.
It was surreal for me to experience a communist government from the perspective of an American and a journalist used to those protections. We all routinely enjoy certain rights without even thinking about it. We can pull up a website to watch TV clips without getting a message that it’s blocked, as I did in Vietnam. We can write a Facebook post that is critical of a public official without fear of repercussions. We can attend any religious service we want – or not, if we don’t believe. First Amendment protections are an integral part of our culture, our identity as Americans, and a daily way of life for us, from late-night comedy routines to professions of faith with fellow believers on the weekend.
It won’t surprise you, then, that journalists working in the U.S. are proud of our constitutional rights, and protective of them, especially when we see reporters around the globe imprisoned or killed by military and governments that don’t allow scrutiny.
Throughout our history, U.S. citizens have known everything a journalist can find out and publish. Court cases have upheld constitutional press rights. Our national Freedom of Information Act supports the right of citizens to know what public officials are doing. As a result, Americans eventually knew about, and held officials accountable for, decisions under the Bush administration that allowed waterboarding and other torture in the fight against terrorism. At Hoa Lo prison in Vietnam, our guide seemed surprised when we pointed out McCain, Arizona’s Republican senator, had been public about his torture there.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about this difference as I returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia and then worked with Bee journalists covering the election. I’m on the board of the American Society of News Editors, which issued a statement the morning after the election that it “stands ready to fight vigorously” to protect the First Amendment. ASNE also joined a diverse coalition of 14 other journalism organizations Wednesday in a letter asking President-elect Donald Trump to commit to long-standing traditions that ensure coverage of the presidency, notably the press pool and faster response to public record requests.
Trump the candidate has been more combative with the media than any president in recent history, threatening during his campaign to make it easier to sue media companies and launching an unprecedented public attack on Fox News personality Megyn Kelly on Twitter.
As president-elect, he’s sent concerning signals about press access. He did not permit journalists to travel with him to cover his first meeting with President Barack Obama. Then on Tuesday he again ditched the Washington press pool assigned to cover him to dine at 21 Club in New York. Why does that matter? A Bloomberg reporter happened to be eating there, and Trump was caught on video promising to lower taxes for wealthy diners.
Fighting for access to information and events is never-ending, regardless of the political party in charge. But the notion that Trump might not allow a press pool to do its job is unheard of. And it shouldn’t be acceptable, either – whether you are a supporter, a detractor, or a member of the media.
The pool is one of many ways journalists keep an eye on the president for the public. Restricting access would disrespect the part of our Constitution that protects values at the core of our identity. We Americans are a complicated, messy, loud and critical mass of humanity. Our confidence comes from our substantial personal freedoms, and access to information is one of the most important.
Don’t mistake government-fed and controlled information as public access or oversight. A Twitter feed is not access to information, and Trump’s decision to keep tweeting as president means he continues to deliver unfiltered messages to the 15 million people who follow him. Just as Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s habit of tweeting out messages and avoiding reporter questions was not supportive of the public’s right to know, neither will this be.
And don’t mistake the self-proclaimed alt-right mouthpiece that supports Trump – Breitbart News Network, headed by the man Trump has named to a top strategy role in his administration, Stephen Bannon – as a source of unfettered public access to information about the administration. It remains unknown how Bannon will influence its coverage now that he will be employed by the American people. But we as citizens should be wary of White House influence over any news organization, even one on the same political page.
Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, issued a statement prior to the 21 Club dinner that said, “We fully expect to operate a traditional pool.” So maybe we should cut the incoming president a one-time break and hope for improvement. Indeed, White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason of Reuters said in a statement that the group is “pleased to hear reassurances by the Trump transition team that it will respect long-held traditions of press access at the White House and support a pool structure.’
But Mason rightly held firm, saying that “the time to act on that promise is now.”
Every signal sent by Trump will be amplified by the power of his new position. It’s important to all of us that he gets this right.