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Story Publication logo August 16, 2017

Opinion: The Trumpian Threat to Freedom of the Press

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Marvin Kalb, resident senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center, has covered U.S. foreign policy for...

President Trump and President Erdoğan give a joint statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Tuesday, May 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of The White House. United States, 2017.
President Trump and President Erdoğan give a joint statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Tuesday, May 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of The White House. United States, 2017.

Enough time has passed to reach a very reluctant conclusion.

Donald Trump, from his first day in the White House, has been ruling, wittingly or not, in a commandeering style unlike any in American history. Experts in politics, diplomacy, and journalism have shaken their heads in dismay and bewilderment, unable to come up with a parallel.

His style of governance could be called creeping authoritarianism. Perhaps it is no accident that the president gets on best with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Nowhere is this new style more dramatically at play than in President Trump's bizarre, running war with the media. It is a war he will ultimately lose, in my judgment, but it is a war he is fighting to win.

Every day he sends his tweeting troops into battle. The press, he fumes, is a "disgrace." Reporters are "very dishonest people." Their coverage he describes as an "outrage."

The New York Times is a "failing newspaper," even though its subscription rate has zoomed into uncharted territory. CNN is "terrible," and Buzzfeed he dismisses as "garbage."

When news stories are critical of him, he calls them "fake news"; when public opinion polls produce numbers that violate his rosy image of himself, they are described as "fake polls." For Stephen Bannon, the president's Darth Vader shadow, the press is the "opposition party."

If for a moment you entertained a doubt or two about President Trump's true judgment of the media, you had only to read and ponder his explosive tweet of Feb. 17. "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCnews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy," he pronounced; "it is the enemy of the American People."

Though the president might not have known it at the time, it was a judgment he shared with three 20th century dictators — Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler. They believed that the media had only one purpose; that was to serve the interests of the state, as interpreted by the leader of the state. If it served any other purpose, it was instantly categorized as an "enemy of the people."

This was a concept so foreign to the spirit of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, noted in part for its hailing of "freedom of speech, and of the press," that every other president, except perhaps Richard Nixon, rejected it.

Why, then, would President Trump launch this unprecedented fusillade on the press?

Is he really so sensitive to criticism, so narcissistic, so obsessed with cable news, that he cannot recognize the essential, underlying importance of a free press? Has he not read the Bill of Rights?

Arizona's ailing GOP senator, John McCain, no fan of Trump, has read it, and he concluded that a "free press" was "vital" to American democracy. Without one, "we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time."

Because the president is arguably the most powerful politician in the country, perhaps in the world, his decision to wage nonstop war against the press has been a matter of more than passing interest. It has truly aroused concern and endangered American democracy. Let us be clear that when Trump belittles and humiliates the press, he is doing more than playing to his gallery of supporters — his base, as it is called. He is seeking to tame, weaken and ultimately emasculate the "fourth branch of government" and rob it of the legitimacy it once enjoyed among many Americans.

And why would a president do this? Surely, not simply to score a point in his never-ending battle for better ratings. There is a larger, more sinister purpose, one more consistent with his tilt toward a form of populist authoritarianism.

If Trump can, at the end of the day, persuade enough people that what they read in their newspapers, or watch on television or their iPhones, or listen to on radio is all "fake news," all lies propagated by his critics and enemies, then he can govern, more or less, as he wishes, without any institutional red lights flashing in his eyes — without a judiciary raising legal questions, without a legislature debating the wisdom of his policies, without a media coming up with embarrassing scoops.

Trump sees enemies everywhere. If facts get in his way, he is perfectly prepared to create his own "alternative facts." He lies so often that truth is hard to discern in his vocabulary. He governs, as if his executive branch already stood triumphant over the rule of law. Power, former President George W. Bush once warned, can become "addictive" and "corrosive," and it can be "abused."

Trump's war on the press happens to coincide with a period of financial and technological instability in the world of journalism. Social media and the internet have transformed the industry. In many cases, network and newspaper budgets have shrunk, and staffs have been cut, while opportunities for many new web adventures have expanded enormously. It's an unsettled environment, in which ethical and professional standards have slipped, and, as a result, many Americans have lost confidence in the media's accuracy and honesty—a perfect storm for Trump to enjoy and exploit.

And yet, in the end, he will almost certainly lose his war on the media. This president, unlike many of the others, seems to need the media more than the media needs him. In fact, the media is his oxygen, his ultimate source of energy. But Trump will lose power, either by being defeated in 2020 or impeached earlier.

The press, though still troubled, retains its power by sticking to its fundamental function: covering the news without fear or favor. This was written into the U.S. Constitution, and it contains no time limits.


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