Shooting The Messenger: Trump’s Attack on Free Press

Trump attacks free press, journalists and journalism in general

A recent report from the Brookings Institution began rather predictably:

A leader who portrays himself as one of the persecuted, the target of an incessant witch-hunt by the so-called deep state. A liberal media intent on revisiting an election gone badly. And a left-wing political machine supposedly out to get him.

The surprise came in the next sentence. “This leader, of course, is Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.” The article was an investigation into what the author called “the politics of grievance” employed by both Netanyahu and Trump.

According to the article, at a recent rally in Israel,

Netanyahu seemed to channel Donald Trump. He even explicitly (mis)used the English phrase “fake news” to attack the supposedly biased mainstream media that’s out to get him. While Netanyahu and Trump are profoundly different—Bibi’s many faults aside, he is erudite, cautious, and experienced—the two men share an approach to confronting political adversity: divide and conquer, turn the spotlight on the “other,” create an other when none is available, and always, always, feed the base.

The parallels between these two flawed leaders include explicit attacks on so-called “elites,” including –prominently, especially–the press. And that assault is no small matter, because in democratic societies, the press is an essential watchdog, the only institution that mediates between the governed and their government. Imperfect, uneven and beleaguered as it is, the media is our only window into the world of politics and policy.

Autocrats want to break that window.

On “Meet the Press,” John McCain recently underlined the danger of attacks on the press.

“I hate the press. I hate you especially,” McCain told NBC’s Chuck Todd, according to excerpts of the interview set to air Sunday. “But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve – I’m very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

McCain’s comments came in response to a question about Trump’s recent declaration, made via Twitter, that the press is the “enemy of the American People.”

A recent article in Newsweek considered the nature of Trump’s persistent assaults on the press, and considered the potential consequences:

The President’s attacks may be reckless – who knows whether someone in his audience will take the President’s word as license to take action against enemies of the American people ? – but they are not without purpose.

They have concrete aims: to intimidate reporters into certain kinds of coverage, or clarify for his favored outlets what coverage he desires, or plant the seeds of doubt about news stories (such as the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller).

The article goes on to detail the ways in which Trump’s hostility to investigative journalism is driving policy–efforts to shut down whistleblowers and others who might provide the press with information about government wrongdoing, and attacks on net neutrality:

For instance, the FCC’s proposal to undo network neutrality rules – those rules that implement a policy disfavoring content-discrimination by digital network operators – threatens the long-term viability of independent media, and does most damage to reporters and outlets that lack the audience and resources of existing media powerhouses.

These attacks on the media are reinforced by the proliferating propaganda sites on line, and by the ability to choose the “news” that reinforces one’s preferred worldview. Educators desperately need to teach news literacy, the ability to distinguish between responsible journalism and irresponsible click-bait.

In our political environment characterized by civic ignorance, hyper-partisanship and confirmation bias, how effective are the efforts by would-be autocrats and political partisans to undermine genuine journalism? How effective is persistent propaganda?

Unfortunately, as Vox tells us, a lot more effective than we like to think.

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on September 9, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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