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Margaret Sullivan: Tracking the special treatment media get when they play nice with the White House

First Published      Last Updated Mar 20 2017 12:53 pm

Some people regard Tomi Lahren as a racist.

The social-media star's past commentary on the conservative website the Blaze, including her disparagement of the Black Lives Matter movement, caused her to be booed when she appeared last year on Trevor Noah's "The Daily Show."

Noah acknowledged that — even as he urged his progressive audience to be polite to his guest: "Imagine you're at Thanksgiving again and your racist uncle walked in."

But President Donald Trump seems to like her style. He was so taken with Lahren's recent appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News show that he rang her up.




"He called and said, 'Thank you for your fair coverage of me,' " Lahren told Washingtonian magazine, which reported that the president had watched the show live as the 24-year-old waxed enthusiastic about why so many Americans had flocked to Trump: 'They said: 'Guess what? This man is doing something amazing.'"

Lahren also told Washingtonian that in the 10- or 15-minute conversation with the president, he "was asking about me personally," but she gave no details about his questions.

With this uplifting example, I inaugurate an occasional feature: Access Watch, tracking the special treatment — phone calls, interviews, perhaps the lone press seat on the secretary of state's plane — that can result when media people play nice.

True, it is not the proper job of journalists to provide favorable coverage but rather to hold powerful figures accountable.

But that doesn't get you far these days, at least in terms of access.

So we'll be taking note of what does.

Consider Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent trip to North Asia — his first such foray. Tillerson broke with long-standing tradition by not including State Department reporters on this foreign trip. The norm is to have a solid group of reporters who provide "pool reports" to others not on the trip, so that American citizens might have a sense of what their government is doing abroad.

Tillerson had only one press representative with him: Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review, a conservative website founded by Alex Skatell, a former Republican operative.

McPike has little experience covering foreign affairs and has been with IJR only a few weeks, but she had written a piece about why Tillerson might be avoiding the press and how well he and the president were working together behind the scenes to get things done.

The Los Angeles Times noted that her LinkedIn profile touts "positive & inspiring" stories.

Skatell credited McPike's selection to her "tenacious, detailed brand of reporting."The decision was a way to give access to a "broader representation of U.S. media," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last week, adding, "This is just an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects, and I'm not trying to say that in a demeaning way at all."

Tillerson's own words showed how little respect he has for journalists' role in keeping citizens informed. He made it all about himself, telling McPike: "I'm not a big media press access person. I personally don't need it."

And then there is what's been happening in the White House briefing room, where new "Skype seats" are just one of the ways that nontraditional, right-leaning news organizations are directing the show.

Andrew Marantz, in a New Yorker article called "Is Trump Trolling the White House Press Corps?," provided a rundown: "Outlets that have become newly visible under the Trump Administration include One America News Network, which was founded in 2013 as a right-wing alternative to Fox News; LifeZette, a Web tabloid founded in 2015 by Laura Ingraham, the radio commentator and Trump ally; Townhall, a conservative blog started by the Heritage Foundation; the Daily Caller, co-founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, now a Fox News host; and the enormously popular and openly pro-Trump Breitbart News Network."

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