The freedom of the press has been under attack since before President Donald Trump took office. His election has only strengthened the threat.
I’ve already written about how local news is under attack, and while that’s still true, things took a surprising, yet cautiously optimistic turn when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai raised concerns over a potential merger between the Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media Company — a shocking blow to Sinclair, the conservative media giant. It now appears the deal is scuttled.
However, local news is only one segment of the overarching media landscape. There are larger forces at work that seek to undermine the credibility of objective reporting. When the facts are inconvenient to a particular worldview, some would rather have no facts at all.
According to an Ipsos poll, nearly one in four Americans, including 43 percent of Republicans, believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” If a quarter of the populace has truly turned against press freedom, it could spell trouble for the United States.
Enemies of the press have a powerful champion in the president, himself.
Trump has been quick to call reports casting him in an unfavorable light “fake news,” no matter the veracity of the material. Candidate Trump attacked the press, and now President Trump isn’t letting up. Even as early as one month into his presidency, he was already naming names:
It’s a battle that’s continued throughout the Trump presidency. Recently, the controversy reached new heights when CNN’s Jim Acosta pressured Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, to deny the president’s claims that journalists are the enemy of the American people, rhetoric that has been historically used by autocrats to threaten critics of their administration. She refused.
The president shouldn’t — and doesn’t — have the right to close news outlets at his whim. Such power would lead to a dictatorship, in which those in government could do whatever they desired, without fear of the public discovering the true depths of their crimes.
Trump can’t be trusted to objectively determine which news outlets are truly engaging in “bad behavior,” anyway.
Under the administration’s current definition of “bad behavior,” it seems anything critical of the Trump White House or its policies would apply.
And what about news outlets who really do behave with malicious intent? Trump is a proud supporter of the conspiracy-ladden InfoWars.com, run by Alex Jones. The website consistently peddles theories that are wholly false, yet Jones’ cronies received a White House press pass (which the administration denied).
If given the power to shutter media outlets for “bad behavior,” the president would malign good actors while letting true evildoers roam free.
Another statistic from the Ipsos poll:
Likewise, most Americans (72%) think “it should be easier to sue reporters who knowingly publish false information.”
I actually support this statement. Making it easier to sue reporters who knowingly lie to the public would only harm people like Alex Jones, whose so-called “journalism” does nothing to educate the public on current events.
Trump seriously misunderstands the purpose of having a free press to begin with. A major part of journalists’ role is to stand as a “Fourth Estate,” checking the excesses of society’s official ruling class. That requires calling out government corruption, criminality, incompetence and maliciousness whenever possible. The idea of a press that protects the public’s right to know, and is itself protected from prosecution when its reporting is true, is a wholly American idea predating the Constitution, itself.
In Crown v. John Peter Zenger (1735), Zenger, a journalist in New York City, was accused of “seditious libel” for printing negative, yet true comments against the colonial governor, William Cosby. The jury found him not guilty — on the grounds he was right. The trial was a foundational moment in American free speech. It paved the way for the First Amendment and later influenced judicial rulings broadening press freedom.
However, supporting journalism in the abstract isn’t good enough. The president should not be a king. The free press is an essential check on the chief executive’s power — and that’s true whether he or she is a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal. Journalistic institutions operating in good faith cannot be closed by presidential decree, as allowing for such would hinder their ability to protect and inform the public they serve.
Granting the president power to silence his critics would send us down a slippery slope, ultimately ending in an authoritarian-like government. That’s not an America I want to live in. ■