President Trump will supposedly sometime tomorrow be presenting his “Fake News Awards” for “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media,” a stupid spectacle that has rightly been mocked in advance by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah. Making the whole thing even dumber, Trump had to move his original award-show plan back a couple of weeks to accommodate the great “interest in, and importance of” the event—or, possibly, to avoid conflicting with the college football championship or just to give his staff more time to prepare him some anti-journalist zingers.
Trump’s “fake news” awards are guaranteed to bring the level of political debate to yet another low, and will even, for good measure, be accompanied by a promised “tweet war of Biblical proportions” between Trump’s supporters and his critics. But lurking behind the whole thing is the very serious threat that Trump’s view of the media presents. Trump seems to be under the impression that the media exists to provide positive coverage of him, and that anything critical of him is “fake news” that has no right to exist.
It seems like a good time, then, to round up the threats to the freedom of the press that Trump has presented since announcing his run for president:
Wants to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue journalists.
At a campaign event in early 2016, Trump vowed to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Trump added that that with him as president, media companies would face unprecedented numbers of lawsuits: “With me, they’re not protected. We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
In March 2016, Trump returned to the theme, wondering if the country should “change libel laws” to get at the “failing New York Times”:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Earlier this month, Trump once again brought up the idea, saying during a public portion of a Cabinet meeting, “We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts.”
Trump’s own behavior has indicated that he would be among the first to take advantage of such “open” libel laws. As a private citizen, Trump repeatedly threatened to sue media outlets, though rarely followed through with actual lawsuits. The Columbia Journalism Review counted 11 times that Trump “threatened to sue a news organization or journalist” during his presidential campaign alone. Since Trump took office, his attorneys have sued Buzzfeed for publishing the Christopher Steele dossier and attempted to stop the publication of a book that was critical of him. Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, first lady Melania Trump settled a defamation lawsuit against a small, Maryland-based blog.
In reality, Trump can’t do much to change libel laws himself, but he does have the power to appoint judges who will be ruling on their scope.
Blames “freedom of the press” for terrorist attacks.
In September 2016, Trump blamed a pair of bombings in New York and New Jersey on the constitutional right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, which he said were allowing the publication of bomb-making instructions:
“They’re all talking about it so wonderfully because, you know, it’s called ‘freedom of the press,’ where you buy magazines and they tell you how to make these same bombs that I saw” Trump said. “They tell you how to make bombs. We should arrest the people that do that because they’re participating in crime. Instead they say ‘oh no you can’t do anything, that’s freedom of expression.’”
Encourages harassment of journalists.
Journalists covering Trump campaign events routinely reported being harassed and menaced by crowds who Trump had riled up with vilification of the media. And it didn’t stop when he became president. In February, he called the news media the “enemy of the American people.” At a rally in August, Trump called journalists “sick people” who “don’t like our country,” raising alarm among members of the press.
A few weeks before the election, the Washington Post described the atmosphere for the media at Trump’s rallies:
Reporters who cover Trump on the campaign trail say his supporters have become more surly and abusive in the past week, egged on by a candidate who has made demonizing journalists part of his stump speech.
Trump’s traveling press contingent of about 20 has been met with boos, shouts and obscenities as it entered — as a single group — the venues where Trump has spoken this week. One reporter who is part of the traveling group described it as “a mob mentality,” particularly at larger rally sites.
Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins told the Post, “I covered the Romney campaign in 2012, and we heard plenty of gripes about press bias, but we weren’t walking into arenas with thousands of people angrily booing and heckling us while we worked.”
Redefines “fake news.”
During the 2016 campaign, a number of journalists looked into the proliferation of “fake news” on social media sites like Facebook, much of it stemming from websites that are designed to look like real news cites but just traffic in made-up stories. But the phrase “fake news” was quickly hijacked by supporters of Trump to describe news coverage they didn’t like in an attempt to discredit the entire mainstream media. Now, Trump talks about “fake news” all the time in his tirades against the mainstream media, which he claims is covering him unfairly, and has gotten allies like the Republican National Committee into the act.
Trump may not be able to single-handedly “open up” the libel laws as he promised on the campaign trail, but his constant refrain of “fake news” has helped to insulate him among his most loyal supporters from anything that reputable news sources might report.
The effects of Trump’s assault on the news media were clear last year when the Washington Post published a thoroughly reported story on allegations that Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had made sexual advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore’s campaign responded by calling the Post “fake media” that was publishing “fake stories” while the pro-Trump Breitbart News went to work trying to discredit the Post’s reporting. Moore ultimately lost, but the fact that he stayed in the race with the backing of national Republicans is in part attributable to Trump and his allies’ deliberate effort to vilify the media.
Trump’s constant refrains of “fake news” and assaults against the media are empowering those within the U.S. who want to restrict the freedom of the press. Prominent Christian nationalist political operative David Lane recently wrote that CNN had “forfeited its right to broadcast” with its pot-smoking, gay-men-hosted New Year’s Eve broadcast, in an article that was enthusiastically shared by others on the pro-Trump Christian Right.