Can Freedom of the Press Survive Trump’s Onslaught?

In the United States, subscriptions are up and investigative journalists are in high demand. But the president's war on the media is just beginning.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16:  Reporters attempt to pose questions to U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference announcing Alexander Acosta as the new Labor Secretary nominee in the East Room at the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The announcement comes a day after Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: Reporters attempt to pose questions to U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference announcing Alexander Acosta as the new Labor Secretary nominee in the East Room at the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The announcement comes a day after Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This week marks World Press Freedom Day, an annual U.N.-sponsored commemoration noticed mostly by organizations that make their living documenting media freedom interferences overseas. This year, though, with President Donald Trump’s well-documented attacks on the news media — renewed this weekend during a rally scheduled to help dampen coverage of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner — World Press Freedom Day celebrants here in the United States have turned inward. In the last few months, concerns that have mainly been tracked, documented, and analyzed globally are now being scrutinized, quantified, and called out here at home.

But as Trump’s first 100 days recede and his frequent taunts toward the media risk seeming almost routine, the press and the public have to decide whether press freedom in the United States is truly under siege, or if Trump’s is the World Wide Wrestling version, staged pretty much entirely for show.

The wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s first 100 Days came on top of months of critical, no-holds-barred coverage of the president. His attacks on journalists, denigration of press outlets, and evasions of truth have emboldened and energized media organizations to double-down on probing investigations, incisive analysis, and up-to-the-minute auditing of everything from alleged Russian election interference to the While House Easter egg roll. This past weekend brought together Washington correspondents, news executives, and press-freedom boosters for a series of celebrations of the First Amendment, and the media’s feistiness in ferreting out the truth about Trump.

With daily hard-hitting stories from media outlets ranging from the New York Times to Teen Vogue, it is tempting to conclude that the Fourth Estate and the public that depends on it are weathering our new president rather well. Perhaps the president’s broadside against the media — last week, PEN America released a report documenting 76 instances of White House attacks on the press since Trump was elected — is one Trump-era phenomenon that we don’t need to worry about.

The president’s declaration that the media is the “enemy of the people” may be just Trumpian hyperbole; an steroidal version of the resentment toward unflattering press that virtually every scrutinized public figure experiences. The press has thick skin and is undaunted: subscriptions and viewerships have spiked; people now even assemble outside the entrance to the White House briefing room to cheer. Some commentators have gone so far as to adjudge Trump’s onslaught on the press as a form of “ritualized warfare” that masks cozy relations behind the scenes.

But the repercussions of Trump’s attitude toward the press and the truth won’t dissipate simply because the media is, for now, unscathed. Trump’s barrage on the press, journalists, and the truth is breathtaking: the insults and innuendo, exclusions and endless cries of “fake news.” The administration’s effort to force Twitter to unmask a dissenting customs official, its excoriations of leakers and whistleblowers, and its veiled threat against diplomats who signed an officially permitted Dissent Channel cable critical of the president’s travel ban reveal that the White House’s campaign to undermine the media forms part of a larger strategy to disable critics.

The president’s disregard for the role of the press and the public’s right to information is also reflected in the approach of key senior officials, including most notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has pulled a curtain around U.S. diplomacy and shared chuckles with foreign counterparts as they’ve mocked the U.S. press corps. The purported “drain the swamp” president is even keeping secret the records of White House visitors and closing off the pavement outside the gate to protesters. The overall message is that dissenters are to be shunted aside, the media treated capriciously, and unfavorable coverage punished by humiliation and excommunication.

The principle danger of the president’s battle with the media isn’t that it will impair effective coverage of the current administration. Leakers and dogged, skilled reporters may take care of that. But the president’s approach poses other serious risks.

The message from America’s highest official — that the world’s most professional and trusted media outlets are malicious frauds, that facts and fakeries are equivalent, and that press access to policymaking and diplomacy must submit to the whims of the powerful — represent a set of values that could undermine democracy. As every parent, corporate CEO, and Fox News staffer knows, values are set at the top. A generation of bureaucrats, prosecutors, policy officers, congressional staff, and agency officials are learning at Trump’s knee. While the media is girded against Trump’s manipulations, their inclination and resources to fight back against copycat efforts up and down the bureaucracy to erode transparency, impugn motives, and launch character attacks, won’t be infinite. Regardless of how he treats reporters behind closed doors, Trump has signaled publicly that it’s okay to play nasty with the press. The relationship between the media and the state is an uneasy truce; Trump has offered public officials license to rewrite the terms as they see fit.

Even if it convinces few in Washington or New York City, Trump’s public posture toward the media can shape attitudes across the country. While we know that more people are subscribing to newspapers and watching the news, we don’t yet know where those people live or what their political views are. If it’s simply a matter of more avowed liberals unable to look away from a car crash, the media’s triumph will be short-lived. If the 40-odd percent of Americans who approve of Trump buy into his public line about the press, his exhortations could gradually reshape society writ large. His disdain for the media and its information could shape how electorates evaluate claims during campaign cycles, how students are taught in school to ferret out facts, and how corporate officials deal with the media and the public. The watchdog role of the media, an informed citizenry, and the vigilance of public discourse in exposing lies and wrongdoing have separated the United States from kleptocracies, oligarchies, and cronyist regimes all over the world. Those precepts may now be in jeopardy.

That brings us to the ways Trump’s attitudes reverberate worldwide. While the U.S.’s record on press freedom ranks below that of many Western democracies, the powerful American news media and its worldwide reach have made Washington the de facto standard-bearer for robust independent media globally. Between 2009 and 2012, the United States spent more than $300 million to train and equip independent editors, journalists, and bloggers around the world and advance media freedom. Senior U.S. officials routinely call out foreign governments for mistreating the press. Until recently, that is.

The Trump administration has been mum on crackdowns on the media in Venezuela, and the president himself dismissed journalist murders in Russia saying, “our country does plenty of killing too.” At a time when record numbers of journalists around the world are being imprisoned and killed, Washington’s retreat from this historic role as a global champion of the free press offers a get-out-of-jail-free card to repressive rulers who hardly need an excuse to go after their media antagonists.

We’ve already witnessed foreign governments drawing from Trump’s pernicious playbook. When Russia argued that the most recent Syria chemical weapons attack was a “false flag” operation, the Kremlin-backed media dismissed news reports to the contrary as fake news. The Cambodian government cited Trump’s expulsion of media outlets from a White House briefing when it vowed to “crush” media entities that endanger the “peace and security” of the kingdom.

That the press seems not only alive but invigorated in Trump’s America is good news. But it shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the danger that our president’s approach to the news represents.

Photo credit: MARIO TAMA/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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