There have been worse years for freedom of the press than 2017.
Take 1798, when President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Act criminalizing criticisms of the federal government deemed fake news.
Or 100 years ago, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act, intended to criminalize government leaks to the press related to national security. This was soon followed by the short-lived Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.”
And, of course, there was President Richard Nixon’s litany of paranoid assaults on the Constitution, including a White House enemies list of 56 journalists and media executives, complete with break-ins at private homes and offices as well as attempts to block publication of Pentagon Papers and to dismiss the Watergate investigation as a “witch hunt.”
But even against this debased backdrop, 2017 stands out. While Nixon railed in private that “the press is the enemy,” President Donald Trump declares publicly that the press is “the enemy of the American people” while stating in the Oval Office, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.”
Taking the term “bully pulpit” all too literally, the velocity of lies and attacks on the press from the president of the United States has the effect of blurring outrageous statements and actions that would otherwise have dominated a week’s worth of news. But just because insane is the new normal, it doesn’t mean that it is normal.
Trump has attacked the press nearly 1,000 times on Twitter since kicking off his presidential campaign. One quarter of the tweets go after individual journalists and one-third target specific news organizations (including The Daily Beast). These are primarily childish insults and threats but occasionally the president retweets violent memes, such as a train slamming into a CNN reporter or a Christmas Eve image of a bloodstained CNN logo on the bottom of his shoe.
There’s a temptation to ascribe all this to Trump’s circus-like “style,” part of the showman’s reality-TV approach to the presidency. But that accelerates normalization and ignores the larger danger to our civic institutions. It’s no coincidence that Trump’s obsessions are with institutions that hold him accountable. That’s why he and his surrogates attack not only the press but also the judiciary, Justice Department, and FBI.
But Trump’s most Orwellian effort may be muddying the definition of “fake news”—moving it away from fundamentally false stories written with the intent to deceive, like the ones that helped him win the election, and toward slang for any news story or organization that works to hold him to account. This explicitly includes the presidential admonition that “any negative polls are fake news.” Given the fact that Trump has the lowest popularity of any first-year American president since polling began, he’s got ample reasons to try and convince his base that he’s really the most beloved leader since Lincoln.
Trump’s attacks on the press have not been simply limited to rhetoric. Words become thoughts and thoughts become actions. The president’s negative obsession with CNN certainly seems to have inspired his Justice Department’s decision to contest the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN. After all, during the late days of the campaign, Trump declared it “a deal we will not approve in my administration.” This apparently overwhelmed the head of the antitrust division’s previous publicly stated opinion that “I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem." In addition, we saw the president of the United States threaten to revoke NBC’s broadcast licenses for reporting he disliked.
But while the Trump administration punishes his enemies, it also seems willing to play regulatory favorites with his friends, as his Federal Communications Commission is poised to approve an exemption for the conservative Sinclair network to buy stations that will give it access to more than 70 percent of U.S. households. Separately, his FCC also decimated net neutrality in a vote along party lines despite massive fraud in the online-commenting process, threatening to upend the free and fair internet that has allowed startup news organizations to proliferate.
At the same time, the president has granted interviews almost exclusively to Fox News opinion anchors, while on-air surrogates parrot White House talking points and spew conspiracy theories, including a repeated riff comparing the FBI and the Mueller investigation to the KGB. Because it’s always appropriate for self-described patriots to compare American law-enforcement agencies to the secret police of a totalitarian state that tortured and murdered its citizens.
All of which reinforces the idea that the Trump administration isn’t at war with the media as much as it’s at war with the truth.
When President Trump calls journalists “the most dishonest people in the world,” there’s ample evidence of projection. The Washington Post detailed over 1,300 false or misleading claims from Trump in the first 263 days of his presidency. And if you’re tempted to rationalize the lies by saying “all presidents do it,” The New York Times came up with a handy chart comparing Trump’s demonstrable lies in his first year with Obama’s over two terms. The results aren’t pretty: We are living in an age of unusual, unbridled presidential disregard for facts.
The press is not perfect. This is hardly breaking news. We are a human enterprise, pursuing, in Carl Bernstein’s words, “the best available version of the truth.” Mistakes will be occasionally made because reporters are human, but in legitimate news organizations they will be admitted and quickly corrected, while purveyors of hyperpartisan hate news and fake news sites see everything through a prism in which the end justifies the means, reducing fellow citizens to warring tribes and mutual incomprehension.
“This year we saw threats to press freedom that we are used to fighting around the world land on our own doorstep, courtesy of the president of the United States,” says PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “So far, they have mostly taken the form of a systematic campaign of denigration, aimed to erode the clout and credibility of journalists. But it would be a mistake to think just because the weapon of choice is insults and accusations, that the danger to the role of the press in our society is less than grave. If the president succeeds in his campaign to convince Americans that the news is not to be believed it could pave the way for him to make good on threats to tighten libel laws and prosecute journalists."
If President Trump’s tirades occasionally sound like they come from the mouth of a tin-pot dictator, it should come as no surprise that real dictators have adopted his rhetoric. Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, Venezuela’s Maduro, and the Chinese government have all adopted Trump’s rallying cry of “fake news” as a mantra to attack media critics when confronted with uncomfortable facts. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 21 reporters in prison on charges of “fake news.” This is more than just a rhetorical war on freedom of the press. It is a core part of the overall assault on liberal democracy by authoritarian regimes that is one of the great challenges of our times.
That’s the larger fight to keep in mind. We’ve seen that democratic norms we took for granted can come under assault from the highest office in the land but still be buttressed by the separation of powers and other checks and balances, including and especially journalists. But a quick glance at the World Press Freedom Index, as developed by Reporters without Borders, “reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise. We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms—especially in democracies.” That assessment should chill even the most cynical citizen.
Democracy depends upon “enlightened opinion” as George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address. It requires a substantive debate where “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts” as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said.
Freedom of the press is helping to keep America great during this civic stress test and if there is a silver lining to all of this it’s that readers are beginning to realize that the free press isn't free—quality news needs to be supported and defended. The challenges we face are real, but I still believe that we’ll look back on this as the best time to be a journalist—not because it was easy, but because it was hard and because our mission was clear.