The anger, disdain, ridicule, and retaliation exhibited by President Trump and his administration towards the press is frightening!
I have a lot of concerns with the current president, but his hostility toward the America’s free press is to me one of the most horrifying. It must be resisted!
The role of the press is critical in maintaining our freedom. I agree with Thomas Jefferson who believed our freedom can only be maintained when the electorate is at least minimally knowledgeable: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…, it expects what never was and never will be.” (Jefferson to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816) Further, he was convinced that a free press was essential to elimination of that ignorance: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” (Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787)
A free press was lost in Nazi Germany. Literature, newspapers, and public events were censored; the purpose was to suppress differing viewpoints to solidify public opinion in support of the Nazi regime. Differing opinions were banned; authors deported and imprisoned. With the opposition reduced to a whimper, Hitler utilized “constant repetition” of his one-sided point of view to control the masses. (C. N. Trueman, “Censorship in Nazi Germany,” The History Learning Site, Retrieved, March 2, 2017) We are not yet at the same point, but distressing signals are cause for concern.
As a former secretary of labor stated, “Democracy depends on a free and independent press.” (Robert B. Reich, “Trump’s seven Techniques to Control the Media,” November 27, 2016)
I intend to examine several issues
- The battle between the press and the Trump administration
- Deciding which to believe: the press or the Trump presidency
- The dangerous course regarding the press being pursued by President Trump
- The readers’ charge for maintaining freedom of the press
The battle between the press and the Trump administration
Trump’s attack of the press/media
President Donald Trump and his administration have made abundantly clear their distaste for the media—at least the media that does not support his positions. Often, the attack takes the form of ad hominem (name-calling):
The language of Trump is varied and pointed:
- “I have a running war with the media.” (Ezra Klein, “Trump’s real war isn’t with the media. It’s with facts.” Vox, January 21, 2017)
- “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” (A tweet by Donald J. Trump, quoted in “Trump tweets: The Media is the “enemy of the American People,” The Hill, February 12, 2017)
- “Outrageous.” (David Remnick, “Donald Trump personally blasts the press,” The New Yorker, November 22, 2016)
- Journalists are “among the most dishonest people on earth.” (Michael M. Grynbaum, “Trump Strategist Stephen Bannon Says Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut,” The New York Times, January 27, 2017)
- “Out of control media….Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth,” (Carrie Healey, “President Trump rips ‘dishonest media,’ says administration runs like ‘fine-tuned machine’,” AOL News, February 16, 2017)
- “Scum.” (Margaret Sullivan, “Traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it.,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2017)
- CNN is a “network of liars.” (Reich)
- Buzzfeed is “a pile of garbage.” (Robert Reich, “Donald Trump’s plan to neuter the White House press corps could neuter our democracy,” Salon Media Group, January 16, 2017)
(Of course, Trump’s specific attacks on CNN and Buzzfeed may well have more to do with those organization’s pointed publications regarding Trump’s “Russia connection” and the controversial dossier containing allegations of Trump’s misconduct and ties to the Russian government—a subject which deserves its own post!)
Trump’s staff has extended his criticism:
- Stephen K. Bannon described the media as “the opposition party….The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” “The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.” (Grynbaum)
In a powerful speech delivered by Bret Stephens at UCLA, he summarized: “The executive branch of government is engaged in a systematic effort to create a climate of opinion against the news business.” (Bret Stephens, “Don’t Dismiss President Trump’ Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity,” the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, Time, February 18, 2017)
Speaking of the 2016 election, another reporter summarized, “Trump did more to vilify and dehumanize the media than any presidential candidate in modern history.” (Chris Cilizza, “The single most important line in Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2017)
Trump and his staff have many approaches to weaken and attack the media.
- He has vociferously accused the media of bias. (Chris Cillizza, “Donald Trump’s latest attack on the media is very, very dangerous,” The Washington Post, February 6, 2017)
- The President routinely describes reporting he dislikes as “fake news,” a term which he has changed to negative news, quite different than its original meaning, untrue news. (Stephens)
- He has threatened to sue the media “vowing to change the libel laws to hurt them. (Stephens)
- He taken away the press credentials of top news organizations. (Nikki Usher, “How Donald Trump could endanger some of the oldest journalistic traditions in America,” Fusion, November 16, 2016)
- He has prohibited news organizations like The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, and Politico from attending a presidential briefings. (Michael M. Grynbaum, “White House Bars Times and other News Outlets from Briefing,” The New York Times, February 24, 2017)
- He has criticized several reporters specifically calling for some to be fired. (Stephens)
- He ridicules news organization he doesn’t like as business failures. (Stephens)
And his inner-circle strategist Bannon has bragged that attacks on the media are “going to get worse every day.” One reporter observed, “Bannon doesn’t want to change the media. He wants to totally dismantle the media. He wants to break its back and leave it for dead by the side of the road.” (Cillizza)
The press/media attack Trump
On the other side, the media has indeed been active in the war with the Trump administration. Mostly, specific accusations regarding his policy and procedures have been utilized, but sometimes the press has also stooped to name-calling.
- “Donald Trump may be sucking wind on his first 100-day promises, but where he’s really blown away expectation is in his ability to lie, lie, lie.” (Kerry Eleveld, “Forget Trump’s first 100 days, his first 100 lies are where it’s at,” Daily Kos, March 2, 2017)
- Trump has been referred to as the “the gaslighter in chief” claiming that like the male character in 1940s movie Gaslight he “pulls out all the stops to make people think that they should believe him, not their own eyes….He will relentlessly lie to the media, manipulate reality.” (Margaret Sullivan, “Trump’s lies, threats show what to expect from the ‘gaslighter in chief,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 17, 2017)
- “No one is better at using social media than Trump. His administration is going to exploit, accelerate and illustrate the decline of traditional media.” (LaVarr Webb, “Battle Royale: Trump vs. the News Media,”UtahPolicy.com, January 23, 2017)
A Media Research Center study found that “88 percent of the broadcast news coverage of Mr. Trump and his team was ‘hostile’ during the first 30 days of office.” The most negative coverage related to Trump’s ban on travel from Middle Eastern nations, border problems between the U. S. and Mexico, cabinet confirmation picks, and Trump’s ties to Russia. (Jennifer Harper, “Press coverage of Trump in first month of office: 88 percent ‘hostile’ says new study,” The Washington Times, March 2, 2017)
This negative coverage has led some to report that “some media organizations are concentrating many resources on covering such conflicts the way they would cover a war, lurching from battle to battle.” (Doug Wilks, “Inside the newsroom: Making media the enemy is dangerous,” Deseret News, February 25. 2017) The “war” metaphor appears again when a columnist speaks of “open warfare between the New York Times/Washington Post wing of the mainstream news media and the Trump administration.” (Webb)
Deciding who to believe: the press or Trump
I recognize that in almost all disagreements there are two sides to the story and that there is usually some truth and falsehood on both sides. That is probably true in the press/Trump conflagration. However, my examination has led me to be very skeptical of statements coming from Trump and his administration. I also am skeptical of many “far-out” media sources, but believe that the mainstream media is usually trying to be factual in their approach. (Some skepticism is an important trait in first listening to all argumentation.)
I have several reasons for my bias; three stand out:
- To me most importantly, Trump and his team often make strong statements with NO evidence.
For nearly three decades I was a high school debate teacher. Arguments and their validity was at the heart of many of our discussions. At the time, the Bible for debaters was Musgrave’s Rules. Rule # 5 stated: “He who asserts must prove. In order to establish an assertion, the team must support it with enough evidence and logic to convince and intelligent but previously uninformed person that it is more reasonable to believe the assertion that to disbelieve it. Facts must be accurate.” (George McCoy Musgrave, Competitive debate rules and techniques, H.W. Wilson Company, 1957)
The frequency with which Trump makes an assertion, but offers no evidence is appalling! A major problem with Trumpian statements is “a suggestion of nefariousness without any evidence to back it up….What trump is doing is leveling a ‘baseless allegation’.” (Cillizza)
His evidence/lack of
“Millions of people…
No evidence of this
Trump’s only support:
“Many people have
come out and said I am
(“Donald Trump’s Lies About the Popular
Vote,” The New York
Times, November 28,
He won the biggest
victory since Reagan.
Obama’s 2012 win
was actually bigger.
He changed his state-
ment to below.
“Trump falsely claims
Biggest electoral win
Since Reagan,” USA
Today, February 16,
He meant he won the
largest electoral win of
of any Republican
George H. W. Bush
won with a bigger
margin in 1988.
“I was given that
He asserts that the
doesn’t report terrorist
“The media love
“He did not name any,
and a request to the
White House for a
list was not returned.”
(David A. Graham,
Claim That the Media
Covers Up Terror
Attacks,” The Atlantic,
February 6, 2017)
No evidence. Why should the listener/reader believe the statement?
(Addendum: as I am finalizing this post, we are reading of President Trump’s claim that President Obama had ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower before Election Day, tweeting the accusation without offering evidence. (Elliot Smilowitz, “Trump accuses Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower,” The Hill, arch 4, 2017) Will evidence be provided?
On the opposing side, I have read articles published by various media in the past weeks which report a news item and cite an “anonymous source.” President Trump has criticized this practice, and also been accused of using it. (Justin Sink, “Trump Fumes About Anonymous Sources After Anonymous Briefing,” Bloomberg Politics, February 24, 2017) I recognize instances may occur where a source does not wish public exposure for reasons that appear justified. However, in my opinion, such a statement is weak evidence, and should be treated with skepticism unless further verified.
- Secondly, far too many Trump statements upon investigation actually appear to be untrue.
Beyond making assertions without proof, Trump and his administrative team has on several occasions made statements that are actually false.
Three more examples:
Trump team statement
Trump: “The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been
in 47 years, right?”
“The murder rate in 2015, the
latest year for which figures
are available, is actually among
the lowest in half a century.”
(“Fact check: Trump overstates
national murder rate,” Chicago
Tribune, February 7, 2017)
Spicer: there has been a
“dramatic expansion of the
federal workforce in recent
“There hasn’t been such an
increase…Data from the
Bureau of Labor Statistics
shows in January 2009 the
federal government employed
2,786,000 people. In December
2016, it employed 2,804,000…
an increase of less than 1%.”
(“Has the US federal workforce
increased’?” BBC News,
January 24, 2017)
Trump: “If the [immigration]
ban were announced with a
one week notice, the ‘bad’
would rush into our country
during that week. A lot of bad
‘dudes’ out there!”
Even if terrorists wanted to
infiltrate the refugee program
through visas, current practice
has in place a vetting program
that “doesn’t allow the kind of
‘rush’ Trump is describing.”
(Ass. Press, “AP Fact Check:
Trump claims on travel ban misleading, wrong,” Washing-
ton Top News, Jan. 31, 2017)
(To see the 20 step process
currently in place for vetting
refugees: Haeyoun Park and
Larry Buchanan, “Refugees
Entering the U.S. Already Face
A Rigorous Vetting Process,”
New York Times, Jan. 29, 2017)
- Thirdly, some of Trump’s team have actually argued against truth-telling
To me, one of the most unbelievable demonstrations of this penchant for avoiding the truth is the petty arguments which Trump and his team has circulated relative to the number of the people who attended the inauguration. How many people attended is irrelevant to me! But apparently it is really important to the President. He estimates between “a million, million and half people.” Photography, metro ridership figures, and estimates of crowd-scientists suggest the figure is considerably less than that. What amazes me is that the President and his team have spent so much time insisting on a large figure. Let the facts speak for themselves and move on. (Timothy B. Lee, “Trump claims 1.5 million people came to his inauguration. Here’s what the evidence shows,”Vox, January 23, 2017; Sarah Frostenson, “A crowd scientist says Trump’s inauguration attendance was pretty average,” Vox, January 24, 2017)
A peculiar rationalization for differing interpretations of the truth was made by White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway. She claimed Trump positions were “alternative facts.” The phrase sounds like an oxymoron to me. Facts, when proven, are facts. If an opposing set of evidence is proposed then one needs to challenge the original statements, not suggest there is an alternative truth. Personally, I agree with a representative of the press who said, “We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that.” (Kyle Pope, “An open letter to Trump from the US press corps,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 17, 2017)
A reporter who worked in China for a period said, “These are the same tactics the Chinese government routinely uses against the foreign press corps: make false claims to support an alternative narrative.” (Frank Langfitt, “For Journalists Who’ve Worked in China, New White House tactics Seem Familiar,” NPR, January 25, 2017)
An extreme manifestation of the attack on truth-telling was made by Scottie Nell Hughes, conservative columnist and Trump supporter. Hughes argued that political concepts are all a question of interpretation, concluding, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” (Max Greenwood, “Trump’s Lies Aren’t Lies because ‘There’s No Such Thing’ As Facts Anymore, His Surrogate Says,” The Huffington Post, December 1, 2016)
The dangerous course being pursued by the Trump administration
When the press is actively investigating, analyzing, and publishing their thoughts, the public is able to consider various sides of an issue. If the press did not do so and our main source of information was the leader only the public has no means to evaluate the information they are being given. It may or may not be reality.
As Senator John McCain wisely explained, “[I]ntimidating and suppressing the news media is ‘how dictators get started’….When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.” (Greg Hadley, “McCain Tweaks Trump by saying suppressing free press is ‘how dictators get started,’ The Charlotte Observer, February 18, 2017)
Another reporter observed: Donald Trump “truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment,…He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.” (David Remnick, “Donald Trump personally blasts the press,” The New Yorker, November 22, 2016)
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and currently professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkley, has posted several discussion where he identifies techniques that “tyrants use” to control the press. In one post, he says there are four major actions. In the chart below, I list the trait he identifies, and in a parallel column suggest how this action is being pursued by President Trump.
President Trump’s action
Berate the media
“Scum…liars…pile of garbage” (source above)
Limit media access
Deny admission to press conferences (source above)
Threaten the media
Threats to change laws to make suing the media easier (source
Bypass the media
“Trump admitted he uses Twitter to bypass reporters” using
tweets to go directly to his supporters (Cat Duffy and Katie
Sullivan, “Trump Admitted He Tweets to Avoid Reporters—
Media Shouldn’t Let Him Get Away With It,” Media Matters
for America, December 7, 2016.
(Robert Reich, “This How Tyranny Begins…Trump and the Press,” Facebook post, December 21, 2016)
In another post, Reich identifies “seven techniques to control the media.” The list is similar. However, he does add one statement that I think well summarizes what President Trump’s goal is: “Turn the public against the media.”(Robert B. Reich, “Trump’s seven Techniques to Control the Media,” (Reich’s blog), November 27, 2016)
“Trump is out to bring us down in the public eye. His aim is to denigrate the work of the media so that our reporting and analyses are summarily dismissed by the public, regardless of the evidence.” (Colbert I. King, “Trump’s war on the press is a strategic calculation,” The Washington Post, February 21, 2017)
I believe much of Trump’s attack on the press and media can only be answered in another discussion. What is his motive? Is the motive found in his aggressive agenda to change U.S. policy or is it actually because the press is honing in on Trump’s relationship with Russia and the purported cover-up of that relationship? When that question is answered we will be in a better position to understand his condemnation of the free press.
Charge for dealing with the problem
A free press is vital to continuing our free society, and each of us has a responsibility to ensure the virility of that free press. Actress Meryl Streep’s comments at the Golden Globe awards have received widespread reaction—positive and negative. To me, one line she said is critical, and absolutely true: “We need a principled press to hold power to account….” (Meryl Streep, quoted in Chris Cilizza, “The single most important line in Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2017)
We all have a role to achieve that end.
To the press/media: You must act responsibly. Evaluate carefully each report you make. Dig deep to separate truth from falsehood. Try to achieve clarity and accuracy in all of your writing and viewing. You are an “essential function in any democracy.” Your purpose is “to tell the truth,” and to do so you must “work harder at covering the news.” As you achieve that purpose, our society will greatly benefit. (C. Powell, “Donald Trump’s Top Advisor Demands Media Stop Telling The Truth,” BlueDot Daily, January 27, 2017; Doug Wilks, “Inside the newsroom: Making media the enemy is dangerous,” Deseret News, February 25. 2017)
To the public: “The freedom of the press is only as strong as we, the public, demand it to be.” We must not be satisfied with the dribble of easy rumor-like news. We must read and study, examine diverse stories, ferret out the truth. (John Cassidy, quoting RonNell Anderson and Sonja R. West in the Times, “Steve Bannon’s War on the Press,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2017)
To President Trump: Truth has nothing to do with deceit. One observer has accused you of a distorted view of truth, insisting that your “view of the world” is “what you can get away with.” (Stephens) Promote your point of view, yes; but, do it with a tenacity to stick to the facts. Facts are real. Abandon misleading statements, admit to weakness, focus on the needs of the country, and appreciate the honest input received from a free press.