Is this how our Free Press dies? How our 45th president could spell the end of an independent Fourth Estate

Freedom of the Press in the U.S. has been hobbled ever since 9/11 — the election of Donald Trump may just kill it

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published November 12, 2016 11:30AM (EST)

 (Getty/Mandel Ngan)
(Getty/Mandel Ngan)

As we wallow in the hangover of this election, one concern has been central: How much damage will a Trump presidency do to civil rights in this nation? After a campaign that openly flirted with fascism and white supremacist ideology, there seems little doubt that a Trump administration will have to contend with the wave of hate it has unleashed and stoked. In fact, President-elect Donald Trump mocked and denigrated so many different groups that many mistakenly believed he would lose because of it.

While there were endless examples of Trump mocking or insulting someone, there was one moment that we all won’t forget: the moment he ridiculed someone who was physically disabled. It stands out as Trump’s "worst offense" of the campaign. Even a Bloomberg poll found that over 60 percent of respondents were disturbed by Trump’s disgusting performance.

But what often gets forgotten is that Trump was not just mocking a disabled person; he was mocking a disabled reporter.

This is important.

Trump’s bigoted attack on various groups can’t be separated from his attacks on the press. As demonstrators take to the streets to defend civil rights, we all need to remember that civil rights struggles depend on the right of a free press to cover the story. Trump isn’t just dismissive of huge sections of the population; he is openly hostile to anyone who questions his authority and offers a competing view of the world, which is why reporters are one of his most frequent targets.

In fact, as we look back on Trump’s attacks during the course of the campaign, the media itself was a central — if not favorite — target of his hate-filled speech. Channeling his inner Richard Nixon, Trump painted a picture of a media elite that was not just after him; it was attacking the "silent majority" and ruining our country.

Again and again Trump directed his anger and hostility against the media. He even created a blacklist of media agencies that were not allowed press credentials to attend his rallies, which included Politico and the Washington Post. At his rallies, there were multiple reports of Trump supporters attacking and insulting the press. And in one extreme example, a Trump supporter tried to terrorize the press with a swastika.

Trump expelled Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from a campaign press conference because he asked an "impertinent" question, and he publicly called another reporter a “sleaze."

Any time a reporter attempted to advance a critical view of Trump, Trump responded by calling himself a victim of media harassment. In one speech he railed against the media, saying, they “will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family.”

It gets worse. At a rally in February, Trump declared that if he were elected president he would "open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money." Then in September, Trump tweeted, "My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting." While most experts suggest that Trump could not change libel laws, the constant threats of lawsuits will most certainly have a chilling effect on reporters, who will self-censor rather than risk Trump’s wrath.

As we saw with his standoff with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who dared to question his treatment of women, for Trump, the media’s only role is to provide him with free and adulating coverage. Anything short of that is to be punished.

Trump’s constant attacks on the media have been so egregious that the Committee to Protect Journalists broke tradition and issued a statement that Trump is a“threat to press freedom.”  Their board of directors passed a resolution declaring Trump “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.” They note Trump’s open call to limit press freedom, his intimidation of reporters and his disregard for the constitutional right to a free press.

They also worry about how his behavior will affect journalists across the globe. For instance, they point out that when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked Trump if his admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin was at all tempered by the country's history of critical journalists being murdered, the candidate’s response was: "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” The message was clear: Trump sided with Putin over the press.

One month before Trump became our president-elect, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote that “a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history.”

But there’s more. We can’t forget the role of Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who has his own checkered history with the idea of a free press. Shortly after Trump chose Pence as his running mate, Slate reported that while the two candidates appear to have little in common, one clear commonality was their shared disdain for the press. But rather than respond to critical press coverage with crazy tweets and threats of lawsuits, Pence actually tried to start a propaganda arm for the state of Indiana when he was governor.

According to Slate, “Back in the winter of 2015, the Indianapolis Star discovered that the governor was planning to start a ‘state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration.’”

Attempting to counter accusations of propaganda, the Pence administration argued that they were just ramping up PR for his office. And yet documents obtained by the Star referred to the site as an “Indiana state news service” that would be “designed to provide the quality expected by today's online audiences.” Pence and his team ultimately dropped the project in the face of public blowback, but now that Pence and Trump are headed to the White House, it’s worth wondering if he will revive his plans under federal cover.

This would all be bad enough if we currently had a robust free press. Instead we have a severely limited press — where the overall number of investigative reporters has gone down while press outlets have had to vie for clicks, hits, and page views. Our #1 news media outlet is Fox News, which is also the top news agency to offer a regular diet of lies and misinformation.

As documented by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, news coverage of the election was pathetic, choosing to focus on the horse race over the issues. According to them, Trump was the first media-created candidate given the unwarranted media attention he gained early in the race. They note that more attention was paid to polls, projections and scandals than to the actual policies of the candidates.

The overall quality of news — especially the corporate mainstream news — has radically declined in recent decades.  This means that however Trump decides to attack the press, we have to recognize that it is already far removed from our ideal of a free press; largely controlled by corporate interests and more entertainment than information, our new media has plenty of flaws. But to really contemplate what Trump could do, we have to go back to 9/11.

As Amy Goodman explains in "Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who fight Back," the Bush administration exacerbated and accelerated a number of key flaws in our “free press.” She reminds us that under Bush “the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Geneva Conventions, and the very notion of the balance of power [were] shredded” But even worse, the media “failed to present a coherent picture of this frontal assault on democracy.”

Just like Trump, the Bush administration manufactured its own version of the truth. Those journalists who did try to correct the record and ask uncomfortable questions were reprimanded, fired, and intimidated. Even Bill Maher lost his job for daring to suggest that anyone willing to fly a plane into a building was not a coward.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration engaged in a systematic campaign of propaganda. Goodman reports that between 2003 and 2005, the Government Accountability Office spent $1.6 billion promoting its policies. The Bush administration also paid reporters in Iraq up to $500 a month to write favorable stories about the war. Goodman notes that the secret program was run by a contractor called the Lincoln Group, which landed a multiyear contract in 2005 for $100 million to produce pro-American media. Goodman reports that the Bush administration also spent about $250 million creating hundreds of fake television and news segments.

In fact, the lack of serious investigative news was so egregious that a number of political satirists stepped up to fill the void. As trust in television news dropped; figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert began to attract more and more viewers, who came to comedians as their source of news.

Colbert even quipped about the lack of good reporting after 9/11 in his famous 2006 White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner speech in front of President Bush. There he mocked the president, but his satire was equally aimed at the lame media that refused to cover the president with integrity.

“Here's how it works: The president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!”

Goodman describes the “access of evil” of journalists who trade access for truth. While these links were disturbing during the 9/11 years, they are legion now. We can thank Wikileaks for exposing the extent to which the Clinton campaign courted a stable of reporters who would write what the campaign wanted. Trump  not only courts reporters who will adulate him, he also openly mocks, threatens and attacks any reporter critical of him.

But it’s worse; he also mocks comedians critical of him. While Colbert was able to roast President Bush to his face and survive the event unscathed, Trump couldn’t handle it when Alec Baldwin impersonated him. He referred to Baldwin’s act as a “hit job” and suggested it was an example of “media rigging.” Imagine how he will respond to far edgier political comedians like Lee Camp or Jimmy Dore who, along with Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore and John Oliver, have done bits that have been highly critical of Trump.

It’s worth remembering that Goodman referred to Bush media policy as “reality TV” -- little did she know that our next president would actually be a reality TV star. Nor could she imagine that she would face jail time for doing her job and covering the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The point is that every worry we had about the news media under the Bush administration seems quaint in comparison with the openly hostile attitude Trump has to a free press. We have never had a president-elect with such a clear disdain for the First Amendment preparing to head to the White House.

While we can take some solace in venues like Democracy Now or The Intercept that remain committed to acting like a fifth estate — becoming our watchdogs to the media — the Trump election is cause for serious worry about the fate of our free press. Don’t forget that Newt Gingrich appears on the short list for a cabinet position and he recently advocated for reviving a House Un-American Activities Committee. Add to that Trump right-wing media cronies Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon and you can get a picture of how grim our news media landscape will be.

There seems little doubt that the press is headed for chilling times and that the new administration will be a master of spin. Every sign points to an all-out assault on truthful, substantive reporting. The media couldn’t effectively push back on Trump when he was a bombastic, bigoted, underdog candidate. Now that’s he’s truly king of the world, it will only get harder. Our only chance is to remember that if we don’t fight for a free press there will be no one to report when the attacks on civil rights start in earnest.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Fourth Estate Free Press The First Amendment Trump Presidency