Trump and the Media; A Test for Democracy

Trump and the Media; A Test for Democracy

Donald Trump's presidency will challenge the First Amendment and the journalists who labor under its protection.

His inauguration is still a week away, but it’s been clear for months that Donald Trump’s presidency will pose particular challenges to the First Amendment and the journalists who labor under its protection.

Trump himself underscored that on Wednesday, in his first press conference in almost six months. He was occasionally solicitous — offering kind words for some journalists and media outlets – but mostly contemptuous of reporters and either ignorant or dismissive of the role of a free and independent press in our democracy.

Trump insisted he’s enjoyed past press conferences but “we stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.” He professed “great respect for freedom of the press” but attacked and refused to take a question from one news organization – CNN – that the day before broke a story about an embarrassing and so far unsubstantiated dossier allegedly assembled on him by the Russian government.

Ominously, he also directed what sounded like a threat at another news outlet, BuzzFeed, that actually published the dossier. The website is “a pile of garbage,” he said. “I think they’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are.”

Scattered through the press conference crowd, usually restricted to reporters, was a substantial contingent of Trump supporters invited by his staff. They dutifully applauded his introduction by VP-elect Mike Pence and cheered as he attacked CNN and BuzzFeed. Viewers most likely were left with the impression that much of the press was taking Trump’s side as he attacked their colleagues.

Our democracy thrives on an adversarial relationship between the President and the press, indeed between the press and government officials at every level. Reporters are supposed to ask tough questions and pursue them; Presidents, senators, mayors, and all the rest aren’t expected to like it but through our history most have recognized its importance.

Clearly, Trump will be different. We’ve seen in multiple settings that he treats adversaries as enemies and he wants his enemies crushed.

As he professes respect for a free press, Trump surrounds himself with people like Corey Lewandowski, who tried to muscle — literally — a reporter who wanted only to ask Trump a question, and Sean Spicer, who on Wednesday threatened to throw CNN’s Jim Acosta out of future press conferences simply because Acosta also tried to ask a question.

Trump exploits social media to brand journalists as “losers” and “liars.” Before a Republican debate early in the campaign, he threatened to unleash “my beautiful Twitter account” on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly; when Kelly asked him tough questions anyway, he complained on CNN that she “had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out her wherever.” The tirade unleashed attacks from Trump followers on Twitter that spurred Fox News to hire security guards for Kelly and her family. 

Trump has spoken admiringly of English libel laws, which as the magazine New Statesman observed on Thursday probably would have suppressed a variety of embarrassing but entirely accurate stories about him were they part of U.S. law.

During the campaign, Trump routinely depicted himself as the target of a media conspiracy aimed at electing his opponent; as President-elect he’s replaying those battles. He routinely ignores the thousands of words spoken and written about various Clinton scandals (remember the private email server?) and portrays himself as the lonely victim of a vindictive journalistic cabal. He’s claimed – falsely – that The New York Times has apologized to readers for its “biased” coverage.

Trump’s penchant for depicting himself as a media victim has spread to Pence, who on Wednesday suggested that news stories about the alleged Russian dossier “can only be attributed to media bias and attempt to demean the President-elect.”

Only attributed to bias? Here’s a thought; maybe those stories can be attributed to an honestly-held belief that allegations that could be used to blackmail the president-to-be and clearly are taken seriously by the nation’s top intelligence officials should be brought to the public’s attention.

There’s every reason to think this situation will only deteriorate once Trump takes up residence at the White House. His attacks will test the nerve of the journalists assigned to cover him, as well as their editors, news directors and corporate bosses. These are tough times for media companies; audiences are splintering and ad revenues are plummeting. How many will stand up to the onslaught of Trump and his social media armies? 

And what about the rest of us? Will Americans continue our migration toward media outlets which are more interested in advancing our partisan or ideological goals than in pursuing hard facts and asking tough questions? Will we recognize that quality journalism isn’t cheap and open our pocketbooks to pay for it? Will we insist that our leaders protect the free flow of information in print and online and will those leaders — outside the White House — pass and defend laws and regulations that promote media independence and diversity?

As we begin the era of Trump, we’d do well to recall the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. “To preserve the freedom of the human mind… and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom,” he wrote in 1799; “for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.” 

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