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Accosting Acosta: will president pay political price for banning CNN reporter?

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  • WASHINGTON — One dramatic White House expulsion might have gotten much of the attention Thursday, but there’s been another that free-speech advocates say must not be ignored: the banning of CNN reporter Jim Acosta.

    The network’s chief White House correspondent and frequent Donald Trump foil had his media pass revoked Wednesday after a remarkable 90-minute news conference in the East Room that saw the president engage in several heated exchanges with reporters, all while an aide struggled to manage their access to a wireless microphone.

    Acosta was holding the microphone, trying to ask a follow-up question, while the president was calling on a different reporter. The aide tried to take it away and Acosta resisted, briefly touching her on the arm as he did.

    “We will never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a series of tweets. “The White House is suspending the hard pass of the reporter involved until further notice.”

    Acosta responded to the Twitter thread with a single sentence: “This is a lie.”

    Trump’s combative relationship with the media in general, and CNN in particular, has been a fixture of his time in federal politics, fuelling support from a grassroots, blue-collar base that cheers his descriptions of unfriendly reporters as “enemies of the people” and their work as “fake news.”

    But revoking the credentials a journalist needs to do his or her job of holding the government to account is dangerously close to a violation of the U.S. Constitution, said journalism scholar Frank LoMonte.

    “The First Amendment forbids punitive action for constitutionally protected expression, and asking aggressive questions of an elected official is certainly within the protection of the First Amendment,” said LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

    It might not be on the same level as firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which the president also did Wednesday. But LoMonte said there’s little doubt that Trump is trying to delegitimize media coverage that doesn’t mesh with his administration’s preferred political narrative.

    “It’s completely fair game for a politician to say he doesn’t think a newspaper or a TV station treats him fairly. The First Amendment applies to Donald Trump, too,” he said.

    “But when a president repeatedly declares that information provided by news organizations is not to be trusted and that government pronouncements are the only trustworthy source of information, that’s crossing a red line.”

    The New York Times urged the White House to reconsider Thursday in a column by the newspaper’s editorial board headlined, “Let Jim Acosta do his job.”

    “Mr. Trump is not likely to temper his rhetoric,” it concludes. “But those he listens to … should try to impress on him the danger of confounding loyalty to Donald Trump with loyalty to the constitution and to democracy.”

    The White House has never before revoked a “hard pass” as a consequence of a reporter doing his or her job. Richard Nixon came close after Washington Post revelations about the Watergate scandal, banning the newspaper from all events except for press briefings.

    Trump, on the other hand, has been trying to block reporters since before he became president. During his 2016 campaign, a number of outlets were shut out by the then-Republican nominee, including newspapers in Idaho and New Hampshire, as well as online outlets like the Huffington Post, Politico and BuzzFeed.

    The White House Correspondents’ Association denounced the decision to revoke Acosta’s White House access, calling it unacceptable and disproportionate to the purported offence. The international Committee to Protect Journalists did the same and called on the administration to restore his credentials.

    And the move sparked fresh public interest in an online petition being circulated by Media Matters for America, a non-profit media watchdog, that calls on other members of the association to show solidarity to any correspondent banned or blacklisted by the U.S. president. More than 333,000 people have signed the petition.

    It’s not the role of working journalists to do battle with the White House, which is a job for the countless advocacy organizations that work on behalf of a free press, LoMonte said. Indeed, he warned, to do so would risk validating the president’s enemy-of-the-people narrative.

    “It’s a bad look for working beat reporters to abandon their reporting role and jump into the arena,” he said. 

    “The whole reason the president likes to push the buttons of journalists by personally insulting them is that he’s hoping to create a narrative that journalists are at war with him. The worst thing a journalist can do is take that bait and enter into combat.”  

    In Canada, where reporters don’t get routine access to the Prime Minister’s Office, media credentials to access Parliament Hill — more akin to the U.S. Congress than the White House — are managed by the parliamentary press gallery, not the PMO.

    “The Canadian parliamentary press gallery opposes the arbitrary cancellation of a reporter’s accreditation as an unjustifiable limit on media access to a democratically elected government and a limit on the free press,” president Philippe-Vincent Foisy said in a statement.

    Added former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, who watched the Acosta encounter play out on live television: “It was the most probably cynical ruse I’ve ever seen a politician use for electoral gain.

    “It’s the big lie,” Axworthy continued. “If you read any standard political-science texts about the rise of authoritarianism, it starts with the big lie.”

    Canadian journalists are no strangers to political efforts to impede their work, or finding that demonstrations of solidarity can be used to attack their objectivity.

    “You won’t believe what the press gallery just did in Ottawa,” the Conservatives told supporters in a 2013 fundraising email after the government refused to allow reporters — only photographers and TV cameras — to cover one of then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s caucus speeches.

    Most outlets chose to boycott Harper’s speech, instead ending up in the New Democrats’ caucus room when the NDP made a show of welcoming them with open arms.

    “We knew they wouldn’t give us fair coverage,” the Conservative email read, “but this is a new low for the Ottawa media elite.”

    Liberals, too, have played the other side of the field for their political advantage. Leader Justin Trudeau made a show of taking media questions at length during his successful 2015 election campaign, an effort to set up a contrast with the notoriously media-wary Harper.

    — With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa

    — Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

    James McCarten, The Canadian Press



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    National

    Air force getting more planes but won’t have pilots, auditor warns

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  • OTTAWA — Auditor general Michael Ferguson fired a bullet at the Trudeau government’s plan to buy second-hand Australian fighter jets on Tuesday, revealing the air force doesn’t have enough people to fly the planes it already has.

    Ferguson said military commanders first alerted the government to the personnel shortage in 2016, when the Liberals were planning to spend billions of dollars on 18 new Super Hornet jets to supplement Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet.

    But the government brushed aside those concerns and pressed ahead with the purchase while providing only minimal increases to training and other measures to make sure the Canadian Forces had the pilots and technicians to use the new planes, Ferguson said.

    The Liberals eventually scuttled the Super Hornet plan due to a trade dispute between Super Hornet-maker Boeing and Montreal rival Bombardier, and are now planning to buy 25 used Australian jets for $500 million.

    But the auditor general’s report said the military’s firm assessment – and his own – is that the result will be the same: planes we can’t use.

    “The (Defence) Department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the report reads: “In our opinion … without more technicians and pilots, the effect on fighter-force operations will be small.”

    Ferguson, whose previous report on fighter jets in 2012 helped blow up the Harper government’s plan to buy a fleet of F-35 jets without a competition, backed up his most recent assessment with some stark numbers.

    For example, in the last fiscal year, 28 per cent of fighter pilots flew fewer than the minimum number of hours needed to keep their skills and 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were empty or filled by inexperienced staff.

    And between April 2016 and March 2018, the air force lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones. Since then, another 17 have left or said that they planned to leave.

    The auditor general’s findings are likely to add fuel to the fire that has been smoldering around the Liberals when it comes to fighter jets, with opposition parties and defence analysts criticizing how the government has handled the file.

    Many have been calling for years for the Liberals to launch an immediate competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s, which are already 35 years old, but the government has insisted on taking its time.

    The government is expected to formally launch a $19-billion competition for 88 new fighter jets next spring, but a winner won’t be picked until 2021 or 2022. The first new fighter jet won’t arrive until 2025.

    In the meantime, despite plans to spend upwards of $3 billion over the next decade to keep them in the air, Ferguson warned the CF-18s and used Australian fighter jets will become increasingly obsolete.

    The $3 billion does not include any actual upgrades to the planes’ combat systems, which have not had significant overhauls since 2008.

    “Without combat upgrades, the CF-18 will be less effective against adversaries in domestic and international operations,” the auditor general’s report reads.

    “Flying the CF-18 until 2032 without a plan to upgrade combat capability will result in less important roles for the fighter force and will pose a risk to Canada’s ability to contribute to NORAD and NATO operations.”

    Unlike in his previous report, in which he raked defence officials over the coals for misleading parliamentarians and ministers about the F-35, Ferguson said most of the current problems are out of the military’s hands.

    That includes the government’s controversial decision in September 2016 to increase the number of aircraft the air force needs to keep ready for missions.

    “It was a significant change as it came at a time when the Royal Canadian Air Force was already facing low personnel levels, was managing an aging fleet and had not yet identified a replacement fleet,” the auditor general’s report reads.

    “The change reduced operational flexibility and would require National Defence to increase the number of available aircraft by 23 per cent.”

    The Liberals have defended the move as necessary to ensure Canada meets its domestic and international obligations, but critics have said it just provided policy cover for the planned purchase of Super Hornets without a competition.

    Ferguson’s report did not delve into the justification for the policy change nor did it review the competition to replace the CF-18s.

    The Canadian Press


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    Canada’s embassies and diplomats unprotected despite warnings, auditor reports

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  • OTTAWA — Canada is not properly protecting diplomats and staff who face security threats at Canadian missions abroad, including many in locations at high risk of terrorist attacks, violence and espionage.

    Federal auditor general Michael Ferguson’s report on security at Global Affairs Canada’s embassies and consulates found “significant” failings in many places that need immediate attention.

    Physical security, such as barriers, video surveillance, alarms and X-ray machines were missing or not working properly.

    Assessments of threats and vulnerabilities at many of Canada’s missions were also woefully out of date and, for a few, missing entirely.

    Construction projects to upgrade security in most of Canada’s missions were at least three years behind, mainly because of poor oversight.

    The AG found many of these problems had been flagged years ago, but recommended steps to address these deficiencies were not in place.

    The Canadian Press


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