Resist Trump’s attacks on American freedom of the press
In his most recent press-related tantrum, President Donald Trump called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” in response to their inauguration crowd estimates, according to a Jan. 21 New York Times article. While White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s insistence that Friday saw “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” despite evidence otherwise, seems almost laughable, the president’s continued attacks on press credibility and his ever-growing vendetta should be more cause for concern than laughter.
This behavior is beyond petty or immature — it is alarming.
Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump has attempted to discredit and devalue the press in the eyes of the American people. Likely a campaign strategy to manipulate voters at first, this tactic now becomes especially lethal in the hands of a leader with actual power — and journalists are not the only people at risk.
Criticism of the press has existed as long as the institution itself, and, in most cases, such criticism is natural and even productive. However, the current level of hostility toward journalists in America is shocking.
In an Oct. 13, 2016 statement, the chairman of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sandra Mims Rowe, called Trump an “unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists” who has “consistently betrayed First Amendment values,” according to the organization’s website.
Trump’s aggression toward the press began early in his presidential campaign. On Oct. 31, 2015, he threatened the Wall Street Journal in a tweet: “The @WSJ Wall Street Journal loves to write badly about me. They better be careful or I will unleash big time on them. Look forward to it!”
This continued all over the campaign trail. At rallies, Trump proclaimed the dishonesty and disrepute of the press to the point of inciting angry mobs directed at reporters covering the events. The hostility and aggression reached such a height that news organizations sought methods to protect their people. According to an Oct. 14, 2016 New York Times article, NBC and CNN hired private security to protect their staff at Trump rallies, and NPR gave its rally reporters special training sessions designed to help them work in hostile environments, according to a March 23, 2016 Washington Post article.
On Aug. 13, 2016, Trump went as far as telling a crowd in Fairfield, Connecticut that he was actually “running against the crooked media” rather than against “Crooked Hillary,” according to an August 14, 2016 article in the Guardian.
Beyond that, Trump banned about a dozen news outlets — including the Washington Post — from his rallies, according to a Sept. 7, 2016 Washington Post article, threatened to sue the New York Times in October and vowed to “open up” libel laws as president. More recently, just over a week before his inauguration, Trump refused to answer the questions of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and called CNN “fake news.”
And that all happened before Trump even had any actual power — but it seems Trump’s animosity toward the press will follow him into the Oval Office. Since Trump took the oath on Friday, his administration has lied about inauguration attendance and condemned news organizations that published the truth.
Beyond considering Trump’s offhand threats that may or may not come to fruition, all anyone can do is speculate how Trump’s feud with the press could escalate in the future, but a look at other leaders’ treatment of their media may give that speculation some direction.
Take Russian president Vladimir Putin — whose leadership Trump has publicly exalted — for example.
Shortly after Putin rose to power in 2000, news outlets increasingly lost their independence either through direct intimidation or a sneakier brand of obstruction, such as denying broadcast licenses to independent outlets, according to a Jan. 4 Politifact piece. Reporters also risked jail time or the demise of their news outlet if they criticized the administration, according to a May 24, 2007 New York Times opinion piece.
Even more sinister, since 2000, 34 journalists in Russia — 17 times the number in the United States during the same time — have been murdered for their work, and though no evidence ties to Putin directly, many of the suspects are connected to the military, the government or political groups, according to the same Jan. 4 Politifact piece.
“Their killers are emboldened to act by an administration that marginalizes [journalists], isolates them, and downplays their role in society,” the coordinator for CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program, Nina Ognianova, said about the murders.
The scenario described by Ognianova seems eerily familiar. While acts of violence against journalists in the United States are not comparable to those in Russia, the attitude toward the American press is. Trump’s administration and supporters — as well as a considerable portion of the general public —meet journalists with increasing hostility and disregard for the importance of their work.
With that said, America has a history and political system distinct from Russia, so a direct comparison could be misleading. However, throughout history, American leaders have also exerted questionable restrictions of the press, including John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts as well as Abraham Lincoln’s wartime censorship of newspapers.
Admittedly, the U.S. Supreme Court has afforded the press greater freedom since those instances, and judging by its decision to rule in favor of the New York Times on the matter of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, Adams’ and Lincoln’s actions likely would not hold today. However, as Trump will appoint at least one justice to the Supreme Court, his ill will toward the press may seep into the foundation of the judiciary — and the country — because he may select appointees who interpret the First Amendment more restrictively.
Even without the judiciary on his side, though, Trump could still manipulate the press through limiting their access to important information, as author and University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone told Slate last March. This could produce two primary outcomes: an uninformed press or a press so desperate to gain access to the coveted information that they become beholden to the government. Either of these scenarios could be devastating to the public due to the press’ vital role as informer of the people and watchdog of the government.
While social media and new technology have immeasurably increased the average citizen’s ability to inform themselves, monitor their government’s actions and hold their leaders accountable, professional news media simply has more resources and therefore must still be protected — even despite its current imperfections and occasional mistakes.
This is the crux of the problem: As more and more people become disenchanted with news outlets, Trump’s threats and assault on the truth seem less and less dire, and the public is less and less likely to stand up for the press and their own right to the information the press provides. Trump’s anti-media messaging found a receptive audience in the American people. According to an Oct. 14, 2016 New York Times article, only 32 percent of Americans trust the press, and the number among Republicans is even lower: 14 percent. To an extent, this distrust is warranted. The media can and must make improvements, but they must be given the chance to improve because the alternative — devaluing the press to the point of crippling it — will have far greater consequences than any mistake made today.
The hostility that Trump breeds is not productive, and if it prevails, news organizations will not have the opportunity to right the people’s grievances regarding its conduct. Criticism of the press is vital; lies and suppression are destructive.