In Part One of this two-part series, Erin Loney discusses President Donald Trump’s relations with the American news media.
President Donald Trump appears to have declared war on the mainstream media over what he calls (or tweets) “fake news”, constituting an explicit threat to American free press. On February 16, 2017, Trump held an unconventional 77-minute press briefing where, not for the first time, he railed against the news media, making comments, like: “Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth, and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that they deserve”; and “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people”; and “The level of dishonesty is out of control”. Ironically, Trump also used the briefing to double down on some “fake news” of his own. In reference to his election win, he said: “I guess it was the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan”, which is simply untrue and was later identified as such by a reporter in the audience. He also claimed that, “We had a very smooth roll out of the travel ban. But we have a bad court”, when in reality, the travel ban caused indisputable chaos and confusion in airports across the country shortly after being announced.
This press briefing was hardly the first time President Trump, or a member of his administration, has asserted misinformation since he was sworn in. In February, Trump held a rally in Florida where he claimed credit for Intel’s decision to invest billions to build a factory in Arizona, when the same factory had already been announced under Obama in 2011. Earlier the same month, senior White House aide, Kellyanne Conway faced backlash over her comments about the now infamous Bowling Green massacre that never occurred. While it is not uncommon for political leaders and administrations to make statements that are not entirely true, President Trump’s concerning habit of labeling false any media publication that appears to criticize him or contradict his beliefs shows almost comical hypocrisy.
Trump’s apparent war on media began long before his presidency. In February, 2016, while campaigning for election, Trump announced, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they (the media) write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” This is a statement of concern for free press, and suggests Trump’s desire to implement censorship and suppress the media. Though Trump’s campaign seemed to advocate for a move away from “political correctness” towards free speech, these sentiments clearly do not extend to media outlets that criticize his actions as President, and his sensitivity to any freedom of expression that does not outrightly support him has become evident.
Trump appears to be aiming to silence certain media outlets, or at least drive the public to question their credibility. On February 17, Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!,” identifying his media hit-list, which, not surprisingly is made up of news sources that regularly denounce his actions. Many of these same media outlets, including CNN, and The New York Times, as well as Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and Buzzfeed were recently barred from a non-televised briefing at the White House on February 24. The invited included a number of reporters that represent conservative-leaning outlets, like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Washington Times, which have all consistently broadcast favourable reports on the administration.
After significant backlash from media outlets like Time and AP, which decided to boycott the February 24 briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that the administration would not “sit back and let false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts get out there,” and would “aggressively push back”. New York Times editor Dean Baquet stated, “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations.” Lee Glendenning, editor of Guardian U.S. said, “This is a deeply troubling and divisive act. Holding power to account is an essential part of the democratic process”. This move followed comments by Trump’s senior advisor, Steve Bannon, at the CPAC event that scolded the “corporatist globalist media” which is “always wrong” about the administration. At the same event, Trump continued his media blast, and condemned the use of anonymous sources, another self-righteous comment considering his history posing as an anonymous source for his own advancement.
The implications of this behaviour from the President of the United States could be damning to free press. Many public figures have spoken out against Trump’s apparent war on (liberal) media, and his administration’s undermining of truth and dissemination of “alternative facts”. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has stated, “It used to be that we could have a discussion and you agree on facts, but you disagree on interpretation… Now we have an administration that says we have alternative facts. It’s going to be very difficult to reach a consensus on the way forward if you’re questioning… facts.” Former president George Bush also expressed his support for free press, saying that it is “indispensable to democracy”, and issued a subtle warning to the president: “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”
Return later this morning at 11:00am for Part Two.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.