The American News License Never Expires

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a campaign speech about national security in Manchester, New Ham
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a campaign speech about national security in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S. June 13, 2016 in response to the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Once, when covering the campaign of a candidate for president, the contender's family designed a ridiculously large credential for reporters traveling with the candidate, and then complained when reporters refused to wear the placards attached to lanyards like some cowbell billboards.

The truth is, despite the lists of news reporters "credentialed'' to fly aboard a candidate's airplane, ride aboard a campaign bus or attend a rally, there is no such thing as licensing a reporter in the United States of America.

Fortunately, there is one universal license for journalism in this free nation. It's the First Amendment to the Constitution. And depriving anyone of the privilege of a morning "bag call" in which a reporter's suitcase is swept up in the hallway of a campaign's overnight hotel stay, carted to the bus and hoisted to the campaign plane, to be delivered with astonishing efficiency on the very hotel bed where the reporter will be spending the next night has even less bearing on a reporter's rights than calling his or her editor to complain about the way the candidate is being treated by the press.

This, then, is the context for the Trump campaign's "revocation'' of press credentials for The Washington Post, the very paper that exposed the high crimes and misdemeanors of a former president and all the president's men.

On the day that Trump's handlers concluded that he had withstood enough scrutiny from the preeminent newspaper of the nation's capital, these are some of the words that the Post was publishing about him:

"When the celebrity real estate mogul declared his candidacy for president, a year ago this week, his declarations and discredited theories, conveyed in a seeming constant stream of tweets and media interviews, still had the capacity to shock,'' Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa wrote for the Post in a story published online this evening. "His characterization of some Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists caused a sensation.''

"But now the kinds of outbursts that might have been disqualifying for any other politician, or at any other time, almost seem like standard fare -- which is itself a testament to how Trump has reoriented the axis of politics and discourse. And everyone else is forced to adjust, from lawmakers in Trump's own party to his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton...

"Trumpism is not defined by any set of policies, or an ideology,'' the Post team writes. "It is not handcuffed to coherence or consistency, except in its disregard for what its adherents deem to be political correctness.''

Basically, you don't need access to a campaign rally to figure this out. Witness the ongoing reportage of other news organizations which the Trump campaign has "barred" from its rallies, Politico, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed News and others.

Withholding credentials for campaign coverage may have carried some weight in the days of Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus,'' or even as recently as the sweet ride of John McCain's "Straight Talk Express,'' when reporters actually benefited from access to a candidate on the road. But now that a presidential campaign press entourage amounts to little more than embeds on a bus, boys and girls alike, dutifully transcribing the words of a candidate almost never met in person, withholding credentials simply means that anyone kept outside the rope line will have to watch the live cable feed from a rally online like everyone else. And, like everyone else, they will remain free to arrive at their own conclusions about the meaning of it all.

The dark side of this is that there was a time when candidates perceived a unique benefit in courting the most influential members of the campaign press corps. They offered special access, unique conversations, exclusive information. Trump himself is known to court certain reporters with the gift of access. Now, on the day the Trump campaign has decided to exclude some of the most inflential members of the campaign press corps from his events, he has made a crude calculation that there is more to be gained in showing supporters that he won't be pushed around by any reporters -- that journalistic ilk whom he has characterized in public as "sleaze.'' They've called the candidate a bully, so they'll have to pay for their bravado.

While Trump contends, as he did today, that Democrat Hillary Clinton is intent on abolishing the Second Amendment, his own statements about loosening libel laws and suing publications that cross him suggest that he's the one intent on abolishing a constitutional amendment, the first one.

On Twitter, the social media platform that Trump has employed to generate his own ample free media coverage, the Post's executive editor calls Trump's "decision to revoke the Washington Post's press credentials... nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.'' Editor Marty Baron suggests that, "when coverage doesn't correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished.'' And the paper pledges itself to continuing coverage of Trump "as it has all along -- honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly.''

Trump's attempt at intimidation started months ago, with tirades against the Post's owner, billionaire Jeff Bezos. Accusing Bezos' much bigger online retailing property -- Amazon -- of "getting away with murder tax-wise,'' Trump accused Bezos of using the Post as a "toy" to ensure that "politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed.'' He suggested the paper's reporting about him is motivated by fear that Trump "would go after him for antitrust because he's got a huge antitrust problem... What he's got is a monoply and he wants to make sure I don't get it.'' In February, he said: "Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems.''

Baron's reply: "As the individual who oversees The Washington Post's news staff, I can say categorically that I have received no instructions from Jeff Bezos regarding our coverage of the presidential campaign.'' Bezos had his own response, calling Trump's comments "not an appropriate way for a presidential candidate to behave." Maintaining he has no worries about any scrutiny of Amazon, he noted the Post has a time-honored job of its own to perform: "It's critical that we be able to carefully examine our leaders.''

And if you know anything at all about the instincts of a newsman like Baron or a newswoman such as Tumulty, you'll know that the word to watch for in the Post's pledge of honest campaign coverage is "energetically.''

There is nothing like the attempted denial of a fundamental right in a free society to ensure that this right will be exercised to its fullest. If "yes" was ever intended to ingratiate a news reporter, in a bid for good press, "no" is a sure guarantee that you won't like what you read.

It isn't the credentials that make a story; it's the quality of reporting. And any candidate who attempts to dictate the terms of news coverage will learn that he's lost control of something else, his own campaign's credibility.