No credentials? No problem! Why The Washington Post’s ban (probably) won’t affect its journalism

June 20, 2016

Donald Trump sent Beltway media into a tizzy last week when he announced plans to ban The Washington Post from his official campaign events. Citing “incredibly inaccurate coverage” (without citing specifics), he tweeted his intention to revoke the press credentials of the newspaper, which he called “phony and dishonest.”

The move prompted pushback from First Amendment advocates, among them Washington Post Editor Marty Baron, who called it “a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.” The Committee to Protect Journalists said Trump was providing “a ready-made excuse for authoritarian leaders” to crack down on the media. Even “Late Night” host Seth Meyers weighed in, barring Trump from his show in solidarity with The Washington Post.

The ban is undoubtedly a troubling development for the campaign press corps. While in principle banning certain news organizations is problematic for the health of a free press and democracy, many new organizations have found workarounds.

For all that hubbub, Trump’s decision to revoke the Post’s credentials may have little bearing on whether the newspaper can effectively cover the presumptive GOP nominee, according to multiple interviews with journalists who have covered or are supervising coverage of the 2016 election.

But the rise of livestreaming and social media, an increasingly adversarial posture toward the press among political campaigns and a growing reliance on digital digging have combined to devalue the press credential, meaning that, in many cases, it’s no longer the must-have entree to election coverage that it once was.

“Nobody likes to wait in line, but it’s not a big deal,” said Katherine Miller, the political editor at BuzzFeed News, which has provided aggressive coverage of Trump’s campaign despite never having obtaining a credential for any of his events. “It hasn’t affected our coverage, it hasn’t prevented us from covering inside rallies, it hasn’t prevented us from covering outside rallies. I don’t feel like there’s anything that we haven’t been able to do because we don’t have credentials.”

BuzzFeed is one of several news organizations, including The Huffington Post, Politico and The Des Moines Register, that have at some point found themselves blacklisted by the Trump campaign, often in the wake of critical stories. BuzzFeed, Miller said, hasn’t been able to obtain a credential since a 2014 profile of Trump’s prospective candidacy by reporter McKay Coppins titled “36 Hours On The Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump” that said the real estate mogul’s political career appeared “on the brink of collapse.”

Regardless, BuzzFeed has continued to report on Trump’s candidacy from the campaign trail, entering his rallies like any other member of the public would. One story, reported by Coppins from a Trump event, described a Trump supporter yelling “light the motherf*cker on fire” as a protester was being restrained by security.

Meanwhile, it’s dug through Trump’s extensive backlog of interviews and found it fertile territory for stories. Andrew Kaczynski, the head of BuzzFeed’s opposition research unit, has turned up Trump’s contradictory statements regarding the Iraq War, found him comparing Iraq and Vietnam wars to dating and making misogynistic comments about actress Daryl Hannah. None of the stories required a credential, and Miller said she can easily stay abreast of developments at rallies with savvy use of Tweetdeck.

“Everyone should have credentials. That’s my opinion,” Miller said. “However, I certainly think there are ways to work around it, and I definitely think that what Trump says at a rally is going to be out there and accessible for lots of people.”

The other rationale for obtaining credentials — impromptu media avails and the ability to buttonhole campaign staffers during events — are also less of an incentive for reporters covering the Trump campaign, which has adopted a combative posture toward journalists in the runup to the election. This adversarial relationship has devalued the credentials, which makes the decision to revoke them less meaningful, said David Lauter, the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.

“Candidates, increasingly, have been cutting down on that kind of access,” Lauter said. “So in a lot of ways, they’ve devalued the utility of actually being with them. It’s reduced their leverage in this kind of situation — because you’re not getting access anyway.”

The Los Angeles Times hasn’t been banished by Trump’s campaign this election season, but Lauter recalls candidates that stonewalled his reporters when he was metro editor. Eventually, he said, when candidates realize that their bans don’t change the tenor or frequency of coverage, they begin to let up.

Like Miller, Lauter cited livestreaming as one of the tools that allow news organizations to make an end-run around Trump’s ban. Often, he said, livestreams from rally-goers or designated camera operators reveal details that reporters can’t see if they’re cooped up Trump’s press pens, or sequestered in the back of the hall.

That’s the approach the Center for Investigative Reporting took earlier this year for “Pumped on Trump” an episode for its weekly investigative show, “Reveal.” During the episode, which sought to explain the motivations of Trump supporters, reporter Katharine Mieszkowski visited a Donald Trump campaign rally in Las Vegas without a credential to talk to voters. She ended up profiling Michael, a Trump fan who gave her an honest interview that might’ve been harder to get from the confines of the press pen.

One of the potential downsides to going without credentials, Mieszkowski said, is that reporters don’t have a visible symbol of their authority, so gaining trust can sometimes be slightly more difficult. And if you’re not on an elevated platform with professional photographers or camera people, you can lose out on a birds-eye view of confrontations if they erupt.

But ultimately, working the crowd from the inside was integral to capturing an authentic experience, Mieszkowski said.

“For our purposes it was really to our advantage,” she said. “Because we could give people this immersive experience of what is it like to be at a rally if you’re one of these rally-goers.”