Trump is taking his anti-press tirades to new levels
He's denting the longtime international view of the United States as the uncompromising champion of freedom of the press
The foreign policy issue of STATE, the digital magazine from CNN Politics, publishes on September 8
High on the list? Neo-Nazis? The Ku Klux Klan? Nope, the press. As the ad’s narrator mentions Trump’s foes, it showcased the faces of many members of the Fourth Estate (including some who work for CNN).
Nine days later, Trump took the stage at a rally in Phoenix and ratcheted up the anti-press rhetoric, calling journalists “liars” and “sick people” who are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.”
“I really think they don’t like our country,” he told a crowd that roared in approval. “I really believe that.”
Since bursting onto the political scene more than two years ago, Trump has relentlessly pounded journalists as “the enemy of the American people” and “among the worst people I’ve ever met.” He hijacked the term “fake news,” originally coined to describe bogus narratives circulated on the Internet, to describe any story that displeases him.
Trump is taking his anti-press tirades to new levels in an audacious and unrelenting campaign to delegitimize and demonize the media. In the process, he’s denting the longtime international view of the United States as the uncompromising champion of freedom of the press. Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, says the consensus abroad has become more like, “You are no longer the shining city on the hill.”
“There no longer is any attempt by this administration to have the United States stand as a model for press freedom or to encourage press freedom abroad,” says Alexandra Ellerbeck, a senior researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And that has an impact throughout the world, says Margaux Ewen, North America advocacy and communications director for Reporters Without Borders.
Trump’s tough talk “emboldens authoritarian leaders to call articles they don’t like ‘fake news,’” she says. “The rhetoric in the world is increasingly mimicking that of Trump. They no longer fear the consequences. If Trump can do it, they can as well.”
Closer to home, Ellerbeck and Ewen worry that the press-bashing can help create a climate that leads to violence against reporters in this country. Both cite the May incident in which Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, was body slammed by Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressional candidate in Montana, who went on to win the race. There also were instances in which a reporter was arrested for shouting questions at Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and another was manhandled for shouting questions at Federal Communications Commission officials.
Concern over the issue is such that this month, a coalition of more than 20 press freedom organizations launched a Freedom Press Tracker to document anti-press abuses in the United States. The need for such an initiative, Ewen says, would have been unthinkable five years ago.
Reporters Without Borders annually ranks the nations of the world according to their record for freedom of the press. This year the United States ranked 43rd, right behind Burkina Faso. That’s down from 41 in 2016. Ewen considers that ranking “really low for a country with the First Amendment.” That’s in part because the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama prosecuted a record number of whistleblowers suspected of leaking to journalists. But Trump’s rhetoric is making the situation worse and Ewen said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a lower finish in next year’s report.
The battering of the mainstream press hardly began with Trump, points out Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and its First Amendment Center. For years, the “liberal media” has served as a punching bag for politicians. The rise of “cable talkfests and partisan radio,” Policinski says, “exposed people to polarizing opinions and raised questions about everyone’s objectivity.”
In the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, the admirable increase in openness about correcting mistakes at news organizations raised questions among consumers as to what else might be wrong. And brutal economic challenges brought about by the rise of the Internet led to a loss of purpose for too much of the media, Policinski says.
While Trump may not have started the fire, his rat-a-tat-tat fusillades have certainly exacerbated it. “The anti-press campaign is not healthy,” Rosenstiel says. “It erodes trust in one of the key institutions we depend on in a democracy.”
Trump’s penchant for falsehoods – the fact-checking organization PolitiFact finds his assertions are wrong much more often than those of many other political figures – and his fondness for declaring accurate stories about him “fake news” leave many citizens not knowing what to believe, Rosenstiel says.
All of which, he says, “reinforces the notion that you can believe whatever you want, that facts are not important. It drives everyone to the home base of doubt and wish fulfillment.”
Despite the controversies constantly swirling around him, don’t underestimate Trump’s impact, Rosenstiel says: “Even in the 21st century, the American public is dramatically influenced by what leaders say.”
Media attorney Charles Tobin shares his concern.
“Journalism is the lifeblood of democracy, and the last thing we need is poison coursing through its veins,” he says. “Trump has the bully pulpit, and he has used it like a bully. When he labels journalists the enemy, he diminishes the news media to a large segment of the public. It’s working all too effectively.”
Tobin says he hasn’t seen any impact yet at the courts. During the campaign, Trump said he would like to “open up” libel laws but hasn’t followed through, and libel law generally is a state matter. Still, Tobin is not sanguine about the future. “There is a whole poisonous truth-doubting atmosphere permeating our society,” he says. “Will that have an impact on the courts? I worry about this.”
One of the bright spots in journalism in recent years has been the explosion of vigorous fact-checking. For years, journalists were too often willing to report an allegation by one side, a response by the other and move on, leaving news consumers baffled as to where the truth lay.
The fact-checking movement, spearheaded by FactCheck.org, which debuted in 2003, and PolitiFact (2007), has dramatically changed the paradigm. Today both the pioneers and many other news outlets are comfortable taking the third step: exploring the situation and judging accuracy. This is enormously helpful as long as the conclusion is based on fact-based reporting as opposed to ideology.
But too often in our deeply split political landscape, many readers and viewers reject these fact-based conclusions if they don’t conform to their worldviews. A classic case was the canard – promoted by Trump – that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, which had a remarkably long shelf life despite ample evidence that it wasn’t true. Our fragmented media culture combined with the rise of social media makes it easy to live in a self-reinforcing media bubble.
In August, Trump alluded to a story about Gen. John J. Pershing executing prisoners during the Philippine-American War with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, even though it had been thoroughly debunked after Trump had told it on the campaign trail.
I once asked FactCheck.org founding director Brooks Jackson if he was frustrated by the notion that many people refuse to accept facts they don’t like. “We do it for those who care,” he responded. “We can’t change human nature.”
A campaign like Trump’s to discredit the news media only exacerbates that mentality. But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, FactCheck.org’s parent, doesn’t think it’s a huge factor.
“Those willing to characterize any messages that Trump dislikes as ‘fake news’ were probably not likely to accept journalistic fact-checking that discredited his claims to begin with,” she says.
Making journalism great again
Recent years have not been kind to the traditional news media. The advent of the digital era had a staggeringly disruptive effect, particularly on newspapers. Plummeting ad revenue meant steep budget cuts and far fewer journalists to cover the news. The quest for clicks often meant more emphasis on tabloid fare and less on public service journalism.
Then Trump came along.
The President may be making journalism great again, at least at the national level. Given the wide array of material – the Trump scandalrama, the barrage of outrageous assertions, the constant churn – many news outlets have stepped up their games. While The New York Times and The Washington Post have led the way, others including CNN and Politico have produced strong, aggressive reporting.
The Times, always described by Trump as “failing,” enjoyed one of its strongest periods in recent years in the second quarter of 2017. The Times garnered more digital subscribers and online ad revenue (though it has also come under scrutiny for reducing its editing ranks). With the unremitting, unprecedented deluge of news emanating from Trumpworld, cable news networks have flourished.
“A lot of people are shining some bright lights where they are needed,” Tobin says. “It could be the kick in the pants that journalism needed and, for the segment of the public that needed to believe the truth, a needed kick as well.”
But don’t pop the cork on that champagne just yet.
News organizations “still face frightening business challenges,” says David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and chair of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A former executive editor of The Seattle Times, Boardman said the so-called Trump bump “helps national outlets but hurts local outlets. There’s only so much bandwidth. Everyone is riveted on the drama in Washington.”
Rosenstiel sees the challenge Trump has thrown down to the press as “double-edged.”
“He has made the press stand up for itself and be aggressive,” Rosenstiel says. “He has stiffened their spine. There’s no lack of belief in news, no tabloidization. He has inspired people to come to the press.”
The danger, though, is that “the press that he has accused of being the opposition becomes so aggressive, so angry, that it feels as though they are the opposition.” The challenge, he says, is to be both hard-hitting and disinterested, which in these circumstances can be a daunting juggling act.
It is, Rosenstiel says, both “an existential and economic challenge. How do you get your audience to like you so much that they pay for you but still tell them things they don’t want to hear?”
Rem Rieder is a former editor-at-large and media columnist for USA TODAY and before that the longtime editor of American Journalism Review.