The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Trump’s war against the press harms our democracy

By Robert Gaudio, February 25, 2017

This article appeared on Syracuse.com Feb. 24, 2017

The press is not the enemy of the American people. In his latest salvo, President Donald Trump is continuing his war of words against the press, or the media. His anti-press rhetoric was a central theme of his campaign and has followed him into the White House. It is on display at press conferences and filtered through talking points made by surrogates in interviews, and of course in his tweets.

Trump’s vitriol against the press goes beyond mere criticism. He has called out reporters by name and riled up crowds with his condemnation of the press and labeled unfavorable coverage “fake news.” On a the positive side, he has expanded the White House press corps, adding spots for non-traditional media outlets, calling on some of them at press conferences and even setting aside space for Skype access to briefings and press conferences.

However, the rhetorical attacks so far seem to be aimed at not just criticizing news coverage, but delegitimizing the institutional press altogether. The relationship between the media and the government, particularly the president, is inherently adversarial. These efforts to discredit the news and the news media send the wrong message to not only the public but also the rest of the world.

The United States has pointed to our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press and to petition government as symbols of American values. Our First Amendment is a pillar of our views on human and civil rights, our values for freedom as a beacon to the rest of the world, particularly authoritarian regimes, countries with state-run media or rigid censorship, or lawless regions and war zones where journalists often are targeted for punishment and violence.

Rhetoric, thus far, is a far cry from authoritarian abuses journalists face in various places around the world. But as Trump adjusts to life as a public official, he refuses to accept the adversarial nature of the press-president relationship. And, it appears as though the president is greasing the slippery slope for regulation or retribution against the press.

The likelihood of “opening up” libel law seems far-fetched, even with his Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has articulated a press-friendly position on libel and First Amendment issues in a handful of judicial opinions. But the door seems open for other action aimed at the press.

For example, Trump has denounced recent leaks and leakers who have embarrassed the nascent administration – an irony considering he lauded some leakers during the campaign. The witch-hunt for leakers is reminiscent of Nixonian efforts from the 1970s, which included at least two landmark Supreme Court cases (New York Times v. United States and Branzburg v. Hayes). If there are leak investigations, there will be no better way for the administration to punish the press than empanel a grand jury and subpoena reporters to compel disclosure of confidential sources.

In a technical sense, reporters would be tangential players in a leak investigation, but the message will be clear to both sources and the journalists: Do not leak embarrassing or confidential information to the press, and reporters, do not seek this type of information.

The administration will also have a number of other opportunities to rein in the press through other legal and policy measures such as de-funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, denial of Freedom of Information Act requests, revamping net neutrality rules, FCC licensing or anti-trust review of major media mergers.

The potential ramifications are enough to keep even First Amendment agnostics up at night. Many First Amendment advocates have been wringing their hands since November and have been openly critical of President Trump’s attacks. Sen. John McCain equated some of the president’s threats to the actions of dictators and authoritarian regimes.

When dictators take control, they first take over television and radio stations. Authoritarian governments control newspapers and some countries with less-than-stellar civil liberties records block or monitor internet content. Dictators not only control the news but the crack down on art, music, entertainment and comedy – all vital elements of the Fourth Estate. When this happens, the true victims are the public.

The news media is not held in high regard these days. Some of the criticism is justified. But regardless of how the public regards media, we need a free, independent press to raise questions, expose wrong-doing and inform the public.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend about the value and need of an independent, free press. His dedication to these values is quite remarkable because Jefferson was the subject of vitriolic coverage and commentary in the partisan press. Yet, he remained convinced that “… The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Maybe someone can re-tweet this sentiment today.