U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

There’s no right way to respond to GOP media restrictions. That’s the point.

Published On
August 24, 2022

Then-Governor-elect Ron DeSantis waves at a 2018 student summit in Florida. Conservative group Turning Point Action is organizing primary campaign events for far-right candidates and placing restrictive ground rules on media.

— Gage Skidmore

Recently, as Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, prepared to travel to Pennsylvania to stump for Doug Mastriano, that state’s election-denying GOP gubernatorial nominee, the organizer of the pair’s joint event, a right-wing group called Turning Point Action, laid down some draconian ground rules for media outlets, and broadcasters in particular, seeking to cover it. To gain accreditation, reporters were asked to agree, among other stipulations, to let Turning Point access their recordings of the event “for archival and promotional purposes”; let Turning Point know how recordings would otherwise be used; get Turning Point’s permission before interviewing attendees; agree not to record anything displayed on screens; and grant Turning Point “the final say on all matters.” According to WESA’s Chris Potter, the same rules would apply to Turning Point–sponsored DeSantis swings through Ohio and Arizona. Turning Point said the rules would “ensure that our media partners (you!) are able to obtain great content, while protecting the experience of our attendees.”

Outlets in the affected states quickly took notice, as did national-level media watchers. A spokesperson for Turning Point told the Washington Post that its rules were targeted at “non-traditional” media whose aim was to capture and monetize footage from its events while also aiming to protect “privacy” and “underage attendees,” but also said that the group would waive “certain clauses” for “legitimate press outlets that are covering the event in good faith,” including the Post. As the DeSantis events neared, some reporters and outlets obtained such waivers. Others made plans to ignore the restrictions (suspecting that they wouldn’t be easy for organizers to enforce) or work around them, interviewing attendees outside of venues, for instance, or monitoring proceedings online. WESA, in Pittsburgh, said it planned to take the latter approach—“However the ground rules may be applied,” it warned, “they present an ethical hurdle on their face”—though it acknowledged that “these are not easy decisions to make, and different journalists may weigh the competing values differently.”

Then there were those who said no, thanks, to the entire charade. In a furious column published over the weekend, Chris Quinn, the editor of Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer, wrote that he would not be sending reporters to DeSantis’s Ohio event with J.D. Vance, the state’s GOP US Senate nominee, because Turning Point’s accreditation rules were “the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime” and he refused to seek “discretionary waivers to unacceptable rules.” (“If you are speaking publicly, people are going to use what you say to help you or fight you,” Quinn added, addressing Turning Point’s “hollow” claim that it merely wants to stop pretend journalists from capturing unauthorized footage. “That’s how politics work.”) Quinn’s column was illustrated with an empty gray box. “Not pictured here are Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who scheduled a rally Friday in Trumbull County that we didn’t write about or photograph because of the absurd rules put in place for anyone covering the event,” the caption read. “They want to take an oath to uphold the US Constitution while trampling all over one of its most important principles, the freedom of the press.”

Still, the current uptick in barriers to access is obviously bad in many respects—particularly when applied to physical events at which candidates will be saying stuff that might merit being reported, especially when it’s authoritarian.

The Turning Point rules may have been eye-catchingly baroque, but they form part of a much broader pattern of restrictions on mainstream-media access to candidates and events—a long-standing bane of political journalism that has significantly intensified on the GOP side of the aisle in the Trump era. Trump arguably kick-started the trend himself when he blocked certain mainstream outlets from his campaign rallies in 2016, though he invited others in so he could use them as props for his invective; he also, of course, regularly blabs to reporters at great length. Beyond that—and the Liz Cheneys and Larry Hogans of the world, who often go on mainstream networks to criticize their party—Republican politicians are increasingly blocking or conditioning access to their events, shunning media-moderated debates, and refusing to participate in everything from day-to-day stories to buzzy magazine profiles about their ambitions. DeSantis, heavily tipped as a GOP presidential contender in 2024, has already been notably guilty on each of these counts.

A few weeks ago, major outlets published a rush of analysis pieces assessing what might be behind this trend, and how dangerous it is. David Freedlander, of New York, put forward various theories—that many Republicans don’t think the press is fair (nothing new there); that they don’t want to have to answer questions about Trump (new-er); that they don’t have to face such questions if they stick to the safe space of conservative media; that they can actively leverage media-avoidance into a badge of honor—which, importantly, are not mutually exclusive. “No one I spoke to for this article thought the current situation was likely to change,” Freedlander added. Politico’s Jack Shafer, as he often does, sounded more skeptical, both that the current situation is new or likely to last. Referring to the rush of analysis pieces as “a case of multiple discovery paralleling the simultaneous and independent invention of calculus,” he predicted that media-averse Republicans will start talking to the mainstream press again once 2024 rolls around and they need to reach a wider audience. Candidate “wordlessness,” Shafer added, can’t stop reporters from writing about them.

The 2024 cycle will open, of course, with a long GOP primary process that will likely incentivize more media-bashing, not less, and the likes of DeSantis will surely find it tricky to pivot from centering their anti-media bona fides—he just put out a Top Gun–inspired campaign ad about “dogfighting” with “the corporate media”—to yukking it up with the New York Times. More pertinently, as the core GOP platform has become more authoritarian, the less pivoting to a broad audience has seemed to matter. Where Shafer is correct, I think, is in pointing out that the mainstream press retains some power here. If candidates won’t be profiled, journalists can, as The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe has advocated, “write around” them. A lack of access to DeSantis didn’t prevent Radden Keefe’s colleague Dexter Filkins from writing insightfully and at length about him recently; it may even have helped him, given the depthlessness of DeSantis’s public persona. Indeed, profiles with candidate buy-in can be puffy. They are also, often, a horserace ritual—and we could do with fewer of those, especially this far out from 2024. Portraits of jockeying horses have their place, but the state of the track matters more.

Still, the current uptick in barriers to access is obviously bad in many respects—particularly when applied to physical events at which candidates will be saying stuff that might merit being reported, especially when it’s authoritarian. Fundamentally, we should aspire to live in a world where politicians of every stripe talk openly to everyone, without the interference of comms people, let alone rules about footage rights and interview vetoes. More immediately, rules like the latter manufacture a bind for the press, which subsequently has to waste time fighting for, or merely thinking about, the sort of access that was, in the past, routine—energy that could more usefully be expended in any number of directions. (News 5 in Cleveland said that it would not have been at the DeSantis-Vance event anyway because it doesn’t typically cover “non-presidential campaign stops,” but allowed that the media rules for the event inspired “much newsroom discussion” and “a physically perilous volume of eye-rolling among staff.”)

When confronted with rules like these, there are some obviously wrong things that news organizations can do, like going along with them. Accepting “waivers” strikes me as a grayer ethical area, but it still, as Quinn noted, cedes an unacceptable amount of media control to subjects, who get to decide who is worthy of a waiver and who isn’t.

Broadly, though, it strikes me that there isn’t necessarily a right response to access restrictions, both in the sense that WESA identified—that there are multiple legitimate ways to fight back, from quiet subversion to loud protest—but also in a more troubling sense. Often, it seems, right-wing restrictions on media access aren’t supposed to have a right answer these days—however a journalist responds, it can be turned against them. If they simply don’t bother showing up at a restricted event, they can be accused of an oversight; if they accept access curbs, they’re owned; if they angrily fight back, they’re triggered. (When a Florida summit involving DeSantis recently barred a number of mainstream journalists, Christina Pushaw, a top DeSantis spokesperson, advised them to “try crying about it.”)

This is not to say that we shouldn’t fight back on access restrictions—we should, and Quinn’s column was a fine example of how to do so—just that we’re dealing, here, with restrictions that are typically unreasonable and thus unlikely to bend to reason. Much has been written, in recent years, about how one logical endpoint of the Trump-era information ecosystem is a journalism world cleft in two, with a bright dividing line between mainstream outlets and right-wing ones and Republicans increasingly seeking refuge with the latter. But it should be noted, here, that controlling who reporters can and can’t talk to and what they can and can’t do doesn’t facilitate a different type of journalism—it’s not journalism. A better word might be “content.”

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