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Trump’s War On Press Is A Danger To US Democracy & Global Press Freedoms, Report Says

A special report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has underlined alarming threats to democracy and press freedom, noting how the US administration is creating anti-media narrative by raising doubts on credibility and reliability of media outlets. In the process, civil liberties and especially freedom of expression is being undermined. Nearly 40 journalists, press freedom advocates, journalism school deans, media lawyers and professors, and administration officials have been consulted for the report in addition to other research resources.

The report details how the “Trump administration has stepped up prosecutions of news sources, interfered in the business of media owners, harassed journalists crossing U.S. borders, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media.” Its more worrying finding relates to the attacks resulting in destroying “the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill tens of thousands of Americans.”

As evident from recent polls, many did not take the coronavirus threat seriously and attributed it to ‘fake news’ and ‘conspiracy theory’.

False, misleading claims

By the count of The Washington Post’s Fact Checker team, Trump had made 16,241 false or misleading claims in all those communications in his first three years in office. The report adds, “A major Pew Research Center study in late 2019 showed that a plurality of Republicans consistently distrusted most of the news media (except for Trump-supporting media like Fox News), while pluralities of Democrats tended to trust them. In a Pew survey conducted in mid-March, 62% of respondents said the news media had exaggerated the risks from the COVID-19 virus.”

The Obama administration “never engaged in public rhetoric against the press,” noted University of Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters. In contrast, Trump has been portraying himself as a victim of ‘unbridled’ media freedom, thereby legitimizing his journalists’ bashing while appalling is the fact that the public is falling into the pit. People chanting at his rallies “CNN sucks.”

“…Trump has created a climate in which the best news, most fact-checked news is not being believed by many people,” said former editor of WSJ Paul Steieger. “In response to Trump’s steady stream of verbal attacks, members of the press were regularly booed at Trump rallies, and reporters named in his tweets have been repeatedly harassed online. There also have been credible threats to news organizations, with CNN frequently targeted,“ the report notes.

From shortcomings in his response to COVID-19 threat to falling indices in stock markets, Trump has blamed it all on media outlets thus successfully creating, endorsing and reinforcing an anti-media narrative. The press has been called “enemies of the people”. Trump’s typical rhetoric speaks for itself as for instance, on Twitter, he attacked the news media in nearly 1,900 tweets, until the end of 2019.

More than 600 of Trump’s tweets targeted specific news organizations, led by The New York Times, CNN, NBC and MSNBC, Fox News and The Washington Post. He called the Times, among other slurs, “fake,” “phony,” “nasty,” “disgraced,” “dumb,” “clueless,” “stupid,” “sad,” “failing,” and “dying.” He has repeatedly called the press “fake news,” “the enemy of the people,” “dishonest,” “corrupt,” “low life reporters,” “bad people,” “human scum” and “some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet.”

However, Twitter allowed Trump “to state untruths with impunity,” as Columbia Journalism Review digital media reporter Matthew Ingram noted, adding that, “knowing that his tweets will be widely redistributed by his followers and the media, and to dodge follow-up questions or criticism.”

What could be the reasons behind US administration’s attacks on media?  Michael Dubke, who served as Trump’s White House director of communications at the beginning of 2017, told that part of the reason “is his frustration with how the press has reported on him. There have been no stories on the progress he made with the economy and foreign policy,” Dubke contended. “The stories have been very negative at best.” In May 2018, Trump suggested in a tweet that news organizations reporting negatively about him should lose their White House press credentials. Trump also has often called for changes in American libel law, presumably so that he could successfully sue journalists and news organizations who publish unflattering stories and books about him. On March 30, 2017, he tweeted: “The failing @nytimes has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change libel laws?”

Trump takes questions during a Fox News town hall with moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on March 5, 2020. Nearly half of the 70 interviews that Trump gave in 2019 were with friendly, right-leaning outlets, according to a count kept by CBS. (Reuters/Leah Millis)

Press access to government information under Trump

Trump has taken personal control over what the White House officially says to and about the press. “It’s a sign of this administration’s contempt for the role of the press that we don’t have daily briefings,” said ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl. “There has been a marked deterioration in the State Department’s relationship with the press under this administration,” said AFP State Department correspondent Shaun Tandon. “What were already long delays in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests have grown at most federal departments and agencies during the Trump administration,” added the report.

During Barack Obama’s administration, 10 government employees and contractors were prosecuted for leaking classified information, including eight charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. By the end of 2019, the Trump administration had indicted eight government employees and contractors in three years for leaking classified information to journalists. The administration also charged Julian Assange, the leader of WikiLeaks.  As CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in The Washington Post in May, 2019, the prosecution of Assange is “a direct threat to journalists everywhere in the world.”

International impact 

Trump has set a dangerous precedent. Between January 2017 and May 2019, at least 26 countries have enacted or introduced laws and government rules restricting online media and journalistic access in the name of fake news, according to Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis for Freedom House. Leaders of Poland, Hungary, Turkey, China, Philippines, and Cambodia are among those cracking down on journalists who have cited the example of Trump and “fake news,” often after meeting with and being praised by him.

How should the media respond

False statements and attacks on the press have been amplified by partisan media and by digital trolls propagating disinformation, making it increasingly difficult for many Americans to tell truth from propaganda and lies. “I think many of our colleagues see the president’s attacks, his constant bashing of the media, as a rationale, as an excuse to cross the line themselves, to push back, and that is a big mistake,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said in his December 11, 2019. “I see it all the time on the front page of major newspapers and the lead of the evening news: fact mixed with opinion, buzzwords like ‘bombshell’ and ‘scandal.’ The animus of the reporter and editor is as plain to see as the headline.”

“The best way to correct the record is for journalists to do good work and to act responsibly,” says Georgia media law professor Jonathan Peters. “They should make every effort to get the story right and to tell it fairly. They should be as transparent as possible about their reporting.”

Utah media law professor RonNell Anderson Jones also wants the press to do more to fight back. “It troubles me that journalists are still downplaying the threat to the press that the president and his administration pose,” she said. “The press is still trying to hold on to its own norms and not get down in the mud with the president. The press needs to advocate to the people for the importance of freedom of the press.”

Recommendations

The Committee to Protect Journalists makes the following recommendations to the Trump administration:

  • Publicly recognize and affirm the role of a free press in a democracy and refrain from delegitimizing or discrediting the media or journalists performing their vital function — not least during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Resume daily press briefings and ensure that reporters independently credentialed by the White House Correspondents Association are granted access. Ensure journalists and their associations have equal and fair access to the White House and State Department and are not punished for unfavorable coverage.
  • Speak to reporters on the record and avoid over-reliance on confidential briefings. Avoid the perception of political favoritism by granting presidential interviews to a range of news outlets, not just those that produce favorable coverage.
  • Do not retaliate against media outlets by interfering or threatening to interfere in the financial independence of their owners. Refrain from threats to rescind the broadcasting licenses of television and radio stations regarded as critical of the administration or its supporters.
  • Instruct all government departments to ensure timely compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests without regard to the media organizations or reporters filing those requests.
  • Implement, at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the recommendations laid out in CPJ’s 2018 report “Nothing to Declare,” including requiring a warrant for device searches and releasing transparency reports about such searches.
  • Prohibit DHS and CBP agents from asking journalists about their beats, opinions, contacts, or coverage. Provide the information related to CBP as requested in the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by CPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) without further delay.
  • End the practice of bringing espionage charges against news sources who leak classified information to journalists, as it creates a chilling effect and restricts the free flow of information on matters of public interest. Drop the espionage charges against Julian Assange and cease efforts to extradite him to the U.S.
  • Order the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to comply with the requirement, under the National Defense Authorization Act, to provide an unclassified report to Congress listing individuals determined to be involved in any way in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Impose sanctions on those deemed to be responsible, including Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
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