In its efforts to discredit and control the media, Sean Spicer and Donald Trump have sounded eerily similar to Communist Party officials.
Americans now find themselves in day four of a real-world experiment: What happens when an elected official with an authoritarian bent and a long-nurtured hatred of media criticism collides with a free press backed by strong democratic institutions?
During the first White House press conference of the new administration, U.S. President Donald Trump’s characteristic hostility towards the media officially transformed from a divisive campaign strategy into a government demand for censorship. On Jan. 21, new White House press secretary Sean Spicer fiercely denounced the media for accurately reporting the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration ceremony the previous day. Spicer offered several factually incorrect statements to back up his claim that Jan. 21 saw “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” He offered a criticism of Senate Democrats as what news outlets “should be writing and covering,” then implied that the White House would punish outlets for similar instances of what he called “deliberately false reporting” in the future.
I have spent years covering the media landscape in China, an illiberal one-party state with notorious and worsening censorship. In Spicer’s hostile remarks, I immediately recognized what I have come to know very well — an explicit government demand for media censorship. I was far from alone in my alarm. The New York Times reported that the “news media world found itself in a state of shock” after the day’s remarks. Social media teemed with jokes at Spicer’s expense, juxtaposing his photo with outlandish claims like “the world is flat.”
During Jan. 23’s press conference, however, Spicer took a less combative tone. His remarks were largely upbeat rather than angry, he accepted media questions from a wide range of media outlets, and he assured journalists that he would never knowingly make false statements, though he qualified that by saying that “I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” He reiterated his previous assertion that the media needed to be kept accountable when it makes factual errors – a reasonable request, when not couched as a threat — and that some kinds of coverage are harmful to the unity of the country.
Crowd size is an oddly small hill for one’s credibility to die on, and Trump’s treatment of the issue says much about how his relationship with the media may develop over the course of his presidency. Trump has an image problem. He wishes to be seen as riding a wave of popular support; he regularly refers to his successful campaign as a “movement,” and in Jan. 21 remarks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia stated that between one million and 1.5 million people attended his inauguration, which would be close to the historic number of attendees at former president Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. But in reality, he assumed office as the most unpopular incoming president in recent history. He also lost the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes.
So when numerous media outlets poked a hole in his self-promoting narrative by publishing countervailing statistics and photos, Trump reacted not by conceding his error but by using his power as president to try to stifle press freedom. His press secretary’s three-prong attempt at media control — portray news outlets as untrustworthy, issue directives for coverage, and threaten those who disobey — takes a page straight out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook. Spicer’s subsequent toning down of the rhetoric indicates that the Trump administration will have to localize this playbook for it to be effective in a democratic country with a powerful constitution; or, perhaps, that they will make no such attack at all. The uncertainty of the administration’s intent has set the media, and some political scientists, on edge.
To some degree, clashing with the press is par for the course for governments and leaders around the world. But the authoritarian government in Beijing has shown how to delegitimize those outlets it doesn’t control, by presenting them as biased, unreliable, or unfair.
Chinese views of western media outlets offer an excellent case study. The New York Times, the BBC, the Economist, and similar outlets are of course free to print coverage that is critical of Chinese government policies; they are neither funded by Beijing, like many major outlets in China, nor are they subject to most of its levers of influence and intimidation. But to many Chinese, the very term “Western media” is nearly synonymous with “anti-China bias.” They are likely to view reports of perspectives exclusive to foreign media outlets with a high degree of skepticism, or even outright disdain. This is no accident. Rather, it is the result of a remarkably successful years-long propaganda campaign by Chinese government and party authorities to delegitimize the news outlets whose content it cannot directly control. One platform it has used to do so is its press briefings. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople such as Hua Chunying regularly excoriate “Western media” for being “unprofessional,” “arrogant,” and “self-righteous.” Chinese state media reports and press briefings also regularly cast doubt on or directly contradict the information found in foreign media reports.
That should sound familiar. Trump has used this very strategy to convince his supporters that the “liberal media” or “mainstream media” cannot be trusted. These terms are not objective designations — Fox News, the most widely watched news network in the United States, is not liberal, yet should surely be considered mainstream — but rather indicate which outlets print Trump’s desired coverage.
It now appears that Trump’s campaign tactics are White House strategy. In his very first appearance, Spicer called the offending reports on inauguration crowd size “egregious,” “irresponsible and reckless,” and “shameful and wrong,” and also accused the press of “intentionally” manipulating information as well as “sowing division about tweets and false narratives.” Trump, speaking at the CIA headquarters on Jan. 21, referred to the media as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
On Jan. 23, Spicer was less hostile, but remained unapologetic for unleashing anger on a press that reported correctly. He did not repeat the debunked claim that Trump’s inauguration had higher attendance than Obama’s, stating that the statistics he provided came from an “outside agency,” and that it “wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.” He painted a picture of honest mistakes rather than intentional manipulation, saying, “There are times when you guys tweet something out or write a story and publish a correction, but that doesn’t mean you were deliberately trying to deceive readers, does it?” Spicer’s reaction demonstrated that while he wasn’t unresponsive to the press, he would continue to defend statements by Trump that were simply untrue.
The other key element of Beijing-style information control is to tell malleable outlets what to say. Beijing does this not by vetting every word in every outlet. Instead, Chinese authorities send out news directives to the press on a nearly daily basis, ordering them to alter headlines, cover certain events with a more positive tone, or delete other coverage entirely, usually focusing on issues it feels goes to the heart of its legitimacy like President Xi’s image, protests in its restive periphery, or criticism of late party leader Mao Zedong, a founder of the People’s Republic. News agencies that step out of line may be fined or even shuttered; offending journalists may be fired. Authorities exercise an even tighter grip on state-run media outlets, such as party mouthpiece People’s Daily and state news agency Xinhua, which serve as nationally influential vessels for state propaganda. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power after he took office in late 2012, state-run media have even been asked essentially to swear an oath of loyalty.
Of course, Trump cannot close newspapers or jail journalists by fiat. And with the exception of Voice of America, which almost exclusively targets foreign audiences, the United States also does not have a state-funded media sector readily waiting to disseminate government messages.
But that didn’t prevent Spicer from issuing what sounded like veiled threats. He appeared to suggest that the Trump administration could deny access to transgressors or simply circumvent them. “We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well,” said Spicer near the end of his Jan. 21 press conference. His second appearance was less accusatory, emphasizing that accountability between government and press should be a “two-way street.” But the underlying distrust of the media and the hazy relationship with facts remained — it’s unclear, for example, why it is acceptable to “disagree with facts,” as Spicer claimed.
The president could choose to only give interviews to outlets that promise him positive coverage. Big interviews mean big readership; it’s not hard to imagine a struggling outlet making that kind of compromise. “I think they’re going to pay a big price,” remarked Trump at Langley on Jan. 21, referring to the media that had crossed him.
It’s unlikely that the United States will resemble Beijing in 2020. But press freedoms can deteriorate even in democratic countries; take Japan. After hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, his administration attacked major media outlets for what they saw as biased news coverage. News organizations began to mute such coverage and to remove outspoken anchors in what appears to endemic self-censorship. The passage of a state secrecy law in 2013 may have contributed to a sense of vulnerability among journalists and government whistleblowers. In 2016, Japan fell to a lowly 72 in a global ranking of press freedom published by Reporters Without Borders, a drop from its previous ranking at 61.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also saw the first White House press conference for what it really was. “It is shameful that on the first full day of this Administration, we have ominous suggestions of possible government censorship,” read the statement, which was posted to the ACLU National Twitter account on Jan. 21. “This will be a fight the Trump administration will most certainly lose.”
But no country achieves and maintains press freedom without a fight; it would be a mistake to assume that Spicer’s attacks will have no effect. The question is how much damage can be done.