Ever since Donald Trump moved into the White House, the question of whether he is undermining the institutions of American democracy has never been far from the forefront of public debate. Trump’s never-ending battle with the media is a case in point. His critics argue that he is waging war on the free press. His defenders counter that it’s all bark and no bite: Trump may say uncouth and shocking things, like referring to the press as “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” but he has supposedly taken no actual steps to infringe on its liberties.
The answer is complicated. Yes, the menace to liberal institutions has often been exaggerated. But it is not made up. What’s more, the experience of other countries offers troubling examples of Trumpian populism can curb and silence the free press.
Pro-Trump talking points include the claim that Trump never referred to all of the media as “fake news” — just the outlets that he believes misreport and distort news stories. But Trump has slapped the label on numerous stories that turned out to be true, especially ones that had to do with the Russia investigation. His apparent criteria for “fakeness” is whether a story makes him look bad. To qualify as the “good” press, media organizations would have to abandon their independence.
Conservatives also frequently claim that, while Trump may do more media-bashing, Barack Obama was much worse when it came to actually trampling press freedoms.
In fact, the Obama administration efforts to quash national security-related leaks led to some troubling policies, from prosecutions of whistleblowers to surveillance of journalists and strong pressure to reveal sources. (At least some Obama-friendly media were harshly critical.) It should be noted that some those policies were inherited from the George W. Bush administration — and have continued under Trump, at least the hunting of leakers and whistleblowers. And there have been new worrisome developments, such as the federal prosecution last year of several journalists who were arrested while covering Inauguration Day riots and charged as accomplices, though the charges were eventually dropped.
Trump’s confrontations with high-profile media members such as CNN’s Jim Acosta may involve grandstanding on both sides. Still, the temporary removal of Acosta’s permanent White House press pass (restored on a judge’s orders) seems to have been a clear First Amendment violation. And the new White House policy of no follow-up questions at news conferences certainly makes it much harder for journalists to hold the administration’s feet to the fire.
Lastly, Trump’s anti-media rhetoric is dangerous even if it’s just words. Millions of Americans who make up this president’s fan base are getting the message that the “hostile” press does not deserve First Amendment protections. Some Trump cheerleaders openly call for the jailing of journalists. In January, Candace Owens, a pro-Trump African-American activist, tweeted a demand to lock up “ALL compliant members of the #FakeNews media,” including Acosta and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. Trump himself has mused about raising taxes to squeeze Bezos’s principal property, Amazon.com, unabashedly linking these threats to Bezos’ ownership of the Post.
Over the weekend, The New York Times published a depressing report on the state of the media in Hungary, where a rather Trump-like anti-immigration populist, Viktor Orban, has made a concerted effort to bring the once-independent media under his control — partly by using taxes as leverage. It would be reassuring to say that our much stronger liberal tradition and our Constitution will not allow that to happen here; Hungary has no First Amendment and much more conservative libel laws. But we live in a time when all bets are off.
The mainstream media have their faults. Their loss of independence would be far worse.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.