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Jeff Simon: Dis-invitation? It never works the way dis-inviters want it to

Jeff Simon

Kaitlan Collins, a CNN White House reporter, was tapped to be the sole "pool reporter" for a White House photo op with President Trump and Jean Claude Juncker of the European Commission -- in other words, at an event that was not designed for questions and answers from the press. She was the pro-forma press reporter on the premises in case something got said.

Just because something is only a "photo op" has never stopped reporters from trying get answers to questions. Some of you will remember the most famous of all "photo op" reportorial interrogators Sam Donaldson, whose booming voice could always be counted on to provide a soundtrack for Ronald Reagan's walk to a waiting helicopter or Air Force One with a question -- usually a tough and knotty one. Reagan would answer by cupping his ear and bending it to indicate he couldn't hear it. Now that may well be true, but whether it was or not, it was a characteristically deft Reaganesque way to keep Donaldson's impromptu interrogative thunder at bay.

Collins' voice is no match for Donaldson's news conference foghorn, but at top volume, she had no difficulty being heard last week.

She asked some questions in case the president felt voluble enough to toss back an answer or two. He has been known to do that at improv press sessions aboard Air Force One.

"Did Michael Cohen betray you, Mr. President? ... Are you worried what Michael Cohen is going to say to prosecutors?

"Are you worried about what is on the other tapes, Mr. President?"

(Remember last week, that stories had already broken that former presidential attorney Michael Cohen had taped conversations with his former client about how to pay off women he knew.)

"Why has Vladimir Putin not accepted your invitation (to the White House?)"

Carefully note all the questions were: a.) pretty good, b.) pertinent to ongoing news and c.) most importantly, were shrewdly worded to be prickly enough to the presidential ego and composure to elicit some kind of possible response, however terse.

Nothing happened. Now any student of Reagan's continuing improv performance as president of the United States (his best acting role, by many miles) would know Collins was easy to rebuff.

A simple responding "no" to the Cohen/worry question -- and only that one -- would have paid minimal attention to Collins without being rude. Then a smile and a "thanks for coming" would have sewn up the event. That would have been a suave Reaganesque way to handle an eager reporter.

Instead, what happened was the whole White House "dis-invited" Collins from a later event with Juncker in the White House Rose Garden that was, as CNN's Brian Stelter put it, after all, "open to all press."

There is where the story suddenly got interesting to any American citizen anywhere -- i.e., outside the ranks of White House press sufferers persevering, even though the president of the United States likes to tell crowds of his political base that "what you're seeing and what you're watching (on TV news) is not what's happening."

Remember the 26-year old CNN pool reporter was acting as a pool reporter for all. Her specific dis-invitation from the Rose Garden press op was met with the Fox News Network instantly declaring its network stood with CNN for "the right to full access for our journalists as part of a free and unfettered press." Fox's Bret Baier tweeted his agreement. Fox's John Roberts (formerly of CBS) is on the same team.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders needed to answer the reporter's intrusive insistence that questions are always pertinent for sitting presidents at press events -- especially when official occasions for questions are few and far between.

No one at the White House is ever likely to inquire about my opinion, but if they had, I'd have told them how completely counter-productive "dis-invitations" are.

I was dis-invited in my first year on the job as News mid-'70's daily TV columnist from the NBC leg of the bi-annual mid-'70's L.A.  press tour. I was part of The Buffalo News reformation of such coverage, which transformed the events from "publicity" (their idea) to wide-open journalistic "access" (ours) whose expenses were completely paid by the paper itself.

I was not dis-invited for any disturbing questions or rudely insistent behavior, but rather for what I wrote after I got back to the office. To put it mildly, I did not "publicize" NBC's new shows, I reported how godawful they were with as much accuracy as I could muster. This was the era, you understand, of "The Montefuscos" for pity's sake. NBC's management was, shall we say, touchy.

The fellow who dis-invited me from the following press tour was a pleasant fellow with a rakish air. Nevertheless, when I called him to inquire why I was dis-invited, he pulled out a large file of my reviews and read from them out loud as if he were the FBI reading my threats against the American government. It was quickly obvious he was embarrassed by the whole thing and had no desire to continue silencing a new voice among the nation's TV columnists who was determined to offer readers the hard truth and nothing else.

I wrote about the whole idiotic affair. And that, as with Collins, is where the whole thing got to be great fun and quite revealing.

My column about being dis-inivited by NBC was reported in Variety by Doug Smith of the Courier, who was Variety's correspondent in Buffalo. After that, the floodgates opened up with supporting mail and phone calls -- not just TV critics around the country, but columnists of various sorts.

I suddenly found myself on all sorts of wonderful mailing lists from columnists I admired -- most notably Marvin Kitman of Newsday, the wonderful fellow who invented a system of rating new productions from PBS' Masterpiece Theater with one to five oil barrels. (A tribute to their constantly reported underwriting by the Mobil Oil Corp.)

Some delightful correspondences ensued -- not to mention a full recantation by NBC and reinstatement of my invitation to whatever the deuce NBC was going to do from then on.

If they were trying to swat down a polite, but uppity young newbie early on, they'd failed resoundingly. All they had done was underscore how godawful things like "The Montefuscos" were.

That seems to be what happened to Collins, now seen as a shrewdly insistent and ambitious young reporter who must now, forever, be accounted a persevering truth-seeker, even at publicity events.

There is little more offensive to journalistic veterans than contemptuous disrespect for colleagues in a world of meaningful work.

A world where CNN and Fox News suddenly start watching each others' backs with regularity whenever possible would really be something to see, don't you think?

So unusual, that you'd almost have to forgive those who are slow on the uptake from thinking it "fake."

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