The Threatened Freedom of Press in America
Freedom of the press has been a cornerstone in American democracy since the nation’s founding. Often called the fourth estate, a free press is meant to expose the truth without fearing the government’s retribution. However, the Trump administration currently threatens to undermine this constitutional freedom, as President Trump repeatedly and publicly his hatred for the mainstream media.
In a solo press conference held February 15th, 2017, President Trump referred to coverage of White House leaks as fake, blasting CNN for having “so much anger and hatred.” However, Trump acknowledged that the leaks were real and provided no evidence of CNN reporting unfairly. Three days later, he released a tweet that equated the mainstream media to fake news: "Don't believe the mainstream (fake news) media. The White House is running VERY WELL."
Trump’s statements are dangerous because they create public confusion, enabling more misinformation to seep into the public conscience. Though fair critiques can be made against the mainstream press, Trump’s attacks fuel distrust in news altogether. This distrust could lead to more incidents such as Pizzagate, a fabricated conspiracy theory during the 2016 presidential elections that linked Democrats, restaurants, and child sex trafficking.
On the other hand, the Trump administration has shown favoritism to outlets that have cover them positively. Trump tends to answer more questions from Breitbart, the alt-right website that Trump’s most senior advisor, Steve Bannon, used to run. This preferential treatment could be used to lead to an increased amount of pro-Trump propaganda.
Even earlier, Trump’s behavior towards the media has been worrisome since the campaign cycle. During the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Trump banned multiple news outlets, including the Washington Post and Politico, from sending reporters to his rallies and other events. Journalists who were able to attend his rallies were corralled into a “press pen.” Reporters such as Katy Tur have described the pen as being restrictive and uncomfortable. The confinement of the press is made worse by their treatment from those who attend his rallies. Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi explained that Trump “made demonizing journalists part of his stump speech,” which encouraged the heckling and intimidation of the corralled reporters.
Trump’s opposition to the media grew even more after he was elected. According to Esquire Magazine, Trump’s transition team suggested that press conferences be moved out of the White House briefing room, an age-old tradition. The Trump administration’s overall behavior towards the media shows an authoritarian tendency, as they are suppressing the voice of critical reporters and using favorable press to serve their agenda.
The state of freedom of the press in the U.S. highlights a troubling worldwide trend. Press freedom saw a “deep and disturbing decline” across the world in 2016, says Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), a Paris-based nonprofit focused on free information. According to RSF, the global score for freedom of the press has decreased by 13.6% since 2013. The nonprofit also reports that 57 professional journalists have been killed, 187 imprisoned, and 44 detained as of December 2016. This is due to increases in state censorship, harsher laws that regulate the media, and more killings of journalists. Not only does Trump’s disdain for the press resemble that of fascist regimes like Russia, but it would also continue the deterioration of America’s press freedom highlighted in RSF’s report.
RSF also uses an index to rank 180 countries on their press freedom each year. Out of those 180 countries, the United States ranked 41st in 2016. The Huffington Post explains that the war on whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, is the primary reason for America’s disappointing placement on the list. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that Trump will ramp up the war on whistleblowers. After President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who leaked footage of an airstrike in which American journalists were killed by U.S. soldiers, Trump responded negatively.
Trump tweeted Jan. 26 that Manning is an “ungrateful TRAITOR” who should not have been released. The tweet implies that Trump would have never commuted Manning’s sentence like Obama did. Trump shows that he will continue to punish those who expose government secrets in the guise of protecting national security.
The most egregious example of this was revealed May 16 in reporter Michael Schmidt’s article on a memo of former FBI Director James Comey. “Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information,” said Schmidt in the New York Times.
Trump’s request directly violates the First Amendment in the same vein as the Alien and Seditions Act. Trump’s proposal would not only punish whistleblowers like Snowden, but also journalists who receive leaked information such as Glenn Greenwald. Many organizations such as the New York Times and the Guardian have a history of exposing government misdeeds through leaks, from the Pentagon Papers to global surveillance programs. Even if the administration fails in prosecuting journalists, many major publications would see increases in self-censorship amongst reporters.
All in all, President Trump’s actions threaten the First Amendment. America often claims to be the symbol of a true, functioning democracy, but the president’s persistent disregard of free press endangers our status as a respectable democratic nation.