Trump’s Assault on the Press is Un-American – posted 1/29/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/3/2017
Covering the presidency of Donald Trump poses unprecedented problems for the press. Never has a candidate for president or an elected president told so many falsehoods. It is impossible to keep up with the volume.
At the same time, Trump has had an almost impervious teflon coat. Lies that would have sunk other candidates do not penetrate the Trump shield. All the falsehoods seem not to register or matter to his supporters. When Trump tells it like it is, the honesty of his assertions gets a pass.
The excuses are impressive. Facts no longer exist. His spokesperson describes his falsehoods as “alternate facts”. Probably the best line I have seen about this is from Salena Zito in the Atlantic: “The press takes him literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally”.
Trump’s own bankruptcy lawyer George Miller made it a practice to have two lawyers in meetings with Trump because he said certain things and then forgot about what he had said previously. Miller called Trump “an expert at interpreting things. Let’s put it that way”.
Trump, himself, flips the script by saying the media are among the most dishonest people on earth. He calls reporters “slime” and “among the worst human beings he has ever met”. He called ABC reporter Tom Llamas “a sleazy guy”. He singled out NBC reporter Katy Tur calling her “a third-rate journalist”. During a press conference last July he told Tur to “be quiet”.
He is a living example of the old saying that the best defense is a good offense.
Trump thinks the role of the press is to acknowledge his awesomeness. As Margaret Atwood has written, strongmen like Trump demand fawning tributes. Trump has been majorly preoccupied with how many times he has been on the cover of Time Magazine.
Whatever Trump says to the contrary, he shows no understanding of the First Amendment. Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump does not appreciate the importance of a strong and independent press as a check on the powerful.
I think Trump’s vilification of the media and reporters is pernicious and over the line. His advisor, Steve Bannon, should not be telling the press to shut up. Nor should Bannon, the former head of Breitbart Media, be calling the media the opposition party. Nothing could be more un-American. Comments like that are a step down a dark road. Now, more than ever, we need investigative journalism.
When they gain power, authoritarians typically repress journalists by threats and harassment. Some authoritarian leaders go the next step and arrange to have journalists murdered. In 2016, around the world, 115 journalists died simply for doing their jobs.
We are living in a bubble if we do not recognize that the profession of journalism has become dangerous. Americans have been insulated because of the strength of our First Amendment.
Promotion of contempt for journalists lays the foundation for acts of violence against them. Calling the press “scum” is dehumanizing. It is analogous to the anti-abortion movement’s treatment of doctors who perform abortions. Dehumanization leads to Dr. Tiller and Dr. Slepian. I do not find it reassuring that Trump himself has said in reference to journalists: “I would never kill them, but I do hate them”.
I would not underestimate the ways Trump and his administration can undermine and repress journalists. Access is life to a journalist. Denying access is a powerful tool and a way to keep reporters obsequious. It is a matter of going along to get along. It can be subtle: the reporter not asking the too critical question to try and stay on the good side.
Trump has blacklisted critical media. He revoked the press credentials of the Washington Post last June. He avoids calling reporters from networks he perceives as too critical like he did with CNN at his last press conference. He can schedule few press conferences, as he has, to try and control questions he gets asked. Tweeting is a way to communicate without having to answer questions.
Trump has talked about changing libel laws so that newspapers could be more easily sued. During the campaign he said newspapers would “have problems” if he gets elected.
As a private citizen, the breath of Trump controversies has been staggering: the sexual assault allegations, the beauty contest scandals, the racial discrimination lawsuit, Trump University, the four bankruptcies, and that is just for starters. USA Today found that over the last three decades , Trump has been involved in 4,095 lawsuits, including 14 media or defamation cases. Of these 14, he was a plaintiff and a defendant 7 times each. It is not surprising he would like a more compliant press.
While I do not think this has worked out for him, Trump cannot tolerate satire like Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live. He cannot seem to handle criticism even though he is in a position that guarantees a large measure of it.
A deeper problem we face is the failure of the corporate media to cover the real issues facing the American people – income inequality, poverty, people without health insurance, racism, and climate change. This is a problem far deeper than Trump. The corporate media is now more consolidated with ownership concentrated in the hands of a super-wealthy elite. Nationally the number of newspapers has dwindled. Too often the media serves up a diet of trivia, infotainment and mindless celebrity. The challenges posed by Trump exist within this deeper underlying reality.
As far as Trump goes, we need serious investigation into his debts, his conflicts of interest, his taxes, his ties to Russia, and whether he is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Also, the sexual harassment allegations against him should not be swept under the rug. Powerful people should not benefit from a double standard. I find it disappointing that the press is not aggressively enough pursuing stories of such great public interest. A historic problem of the American press has been its conformity.
Americans cherish the First Amendment as maybe our highest value. We have never had a president with less respect for the First Amendment. That alone is scary and sobering.