The Danger to Democracy

When the media – driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome – reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic! Freedom of the press also comes with a responsibility to report the news… — Tweet of President Donald Trump, July 29, 2018.

President Trump speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The president is intensifying his war on our nation’s free press. Trump has made “fake news” and “enemy of the people” rallying cries in his attempt to insure that the media cannot perform its historic duty to inform the public. This past Sunday’s tweet storm included accusations that “90% of media coverage of my Administration is negative,” and he attacked “the failing New York Times… and the Amazon Washington Post” for writing “bad stories on very positive achievements – and they will never change!” Sunday’s tweets followed a speech last week in Kansas City, Missouri, in which Trump told the Veterans of Foreign Wars‘ annual convention, “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people — the fake news…. What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Trump uses more than rhetoric to diminish the reputation of the press. He and his administration also try to manipulate and influence how news outlets cover the president and intimidate reporters they do not like. On his recent visit to the United Kingdom, the president referred frequently to “fake news” during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Theresa May. When Kristen Welker of NBC News asked if Trump’s shaky relationship with NATO allies gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the “upper hand,” the president responded, “See, that’s such dishonest reporting — of course it happens to be NBC, which is possibly worse than CNN.” That slur led to this exchange between Trump and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta:

ACOSTA: Mr. President, since you attacked CNN, can I ask you a question?

TRUMP: John Roberts, go ahead.

ACOSTA: Can I ask you a question?

TRUMP: No, no. John Roberts, go ahead. CNN is fake news. I don’t take questions from CNN.

ACOSTA: Take a question …

TRUMP: John Roberts of Fox, let’s go to a real network.

ACOSTA: Well, we’re a real network, too, sir.

John Roberts of Fox News asking President Trump a question at a press conference in the United Kingdom. CNN‘s Jim Acosta is in the middle.

Roberts then asked a question, validating Trump’s baseless and authoritarian attempt to manipulate news coverage and anointing Fox state TV. [Full disclosure: Both John Roberts and I worked at CNN, but our tenures did not overlap, and, as far as I can recall, we have never met.] Roberts apparently has forgotten that the Obama administration, in 2009, attempted to exclude his current employer, Fox News, from a series of interviews on the grounds that Fox “is not a news organization.” As Jake Tapper of CNN noted in a tweet, “Old enough to remember when other networks came to defense of Fox News WH correspondents during the Obama years. Such did not happen here.” Roberts should have refused to ask a question, deferring instead to Acosta. Jordan Fabian of The Hill declined a question last week as he foiled White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ attempt to bypass Hallie Jackson of NBC, who was trying to ask a followup question. Fabian said, “Hallie, go ahead if you want.” Kudos to Fabian for doing the right thing!

CNN White House reporter Kaitlin Collins.

Last Wednesday, the administration blocked a CNN reporter from an open media event at the White House as punishment for her vigorous questioning of the president during a press-pool spray in the Oval Office. Barring a credentialed White House reporter from an event open to all members of the press is unprecedented. According to CNN’s Kaitlin Collins, Sanders and communications director Bill Shine objected to Collins shouting questions at Trump, which is normal practice in a spray. Collins was the pool reporter — which means she represented all news organizations subscribing to the pool, since the Oval Office cannot accommodate everyone. As pool reporter, Collins was obligated to report any news to the pool before informing CNN. She was performing her duty as pool reporter for the entire press corps by asking Trump questions during a spray — a time when cameras roll and there are no scripted remarks.

All administrations try to control the press. The relationship between newsmakers and news gatherers is inherently adversarial. The White House’s goal is to insure that its message gets out, and the press’s mission is to sift through the spin and report accurately what the White House is doing. Those two objectives are often in conflict. But, past administrations generally have recognized proper boundaries, and none ever tried to manipulate coverage as has the Trump crew. The Trump administration’s attempts to control the press impede the media’s ability to insure an informed electorate. This should be obvious to everyone, though it apparently is not in this age when Trump’s repeated fulminations against “fake news” seemingly resonate with his base. 

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times.

Moreover, Trump’s labeling the media “enemy of the people” endangers those whose job it is to report on him. This is a point  A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, tried to make in a recent meeting with Trump. “I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful,” Sulzberger said in a statement, “I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’ I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.” Sulzberger noted that this is particularly a problem overseas, where the president’s incendiary verbiage can be an excuse for undemocratic regimes to crack down on journalists.

The public probably does not care much about the safety of reporters. But, the public should care about the truth and should want to know what the government in a democracy is doing. That is the job of the press. It becomes absolutely Orwellian — perhaps Stalinist, which, after all, was Orwell’s model — for the president to tell his followers, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In other words, do not believe what you see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears, believe instead what I tell you. We knew all this was coming when Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump administration official, told us that claims that the president’s inaugural crowd was huge were “alternative facts.”

If you are not worried about the future of democracy, you should be!

Posted July 31, 2018

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