'Frankly disgusting:' Trump's latest salvo against a free press

It takes chutzpah for a man who for two decades phoned media outlets to praise himself, posing as nonexistent publicists named “John Barron” and “John Miller,” who spoke with Donald Trump’s distinctive Queens accent and unmistakeable hyperbolic prose styling, to accuse a “dishonest media” of having “sources that don’t exist.”

“Frankly disgusting” is the president’s latest description of freedom of the press, that foundational principle of American democracy enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Enraged for the umpteenth time over administration leaks casting him in an unflattering light rather than showering him with paeans he believes he deserves, Trump twice took to Twitter on Wednesday and used a press availability — consider the irony — to enlist the same press he so despises to spread his message that “people” should “look into” revoking licenses for network news.

Trump hasn’t yet lost his ability to shock. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska tweeted to the president, asking if he was recanting “the oath you took . . . to preserve, protect and defend the 1st Amendment?” One Federal Communications Commissioner tweeted to Trump, “Not how it works”; licenses aren’t held by networks like NBC, CNN, or FOX for that matter, but by local stations. The FCC can’t in fact use licensing as a political cudgel; the First Amendment “protects broadcasts that criticize or ridicule . . . institutions, including the government and its officials.”

Trump’s latest parry is reminiscent of his vows to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue newsrooms, another threat that’s worrying but not actionable. The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a broad interpretation of freedom of speech, and it would be hard to prove the “failing New York Times” and “fake news NBC” are acting with actual malice or reckless disregard for truth.

What’s more worrying is that our president is either ignorant of our constitutional rights or intentionally misleading the public to discredit media and undermine any negative coverage of him. Trump has capitalized on decades of declining public trust in the press, especially among Republicans.

“A president this constitutionally illiterate poses a direct threat to democracy,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law school professor. His willingness to say such “uninformed things” raises the question of whether it’s “a diversionary tactic so people don’t see actual things taking place.”

Going after journalists shifts “attention away from the underlying story, which is probably what we should be focusing on,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

NBC piqued Trump’s ire this time by citing three sources who said they were in a briefing where the president said he wanted to enlarge our nuclear arsenal after hearing it’s been declining for decades (due to arms control treaties promoted by no less a Cold Warrior than Ronald Reagan).

Trump has called journalists the “enemy of the American people”; dismissed the press as “the most dishonest people”; and accused them of not covering his rallies as they are carrying them live. Trump has claimed journalists are too cowardly to cover hurricanes, though reporters got to each disaster before he did. Last weekend, he urged the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the media instead of the “phony” Russia probe, and suggested we bring back the Fairness Doctrine — which he may not realize was repealed with full support of Reagan, enabling the rise of right-wing talk radio and Fox News.

Trump’s outbursts echo rhetoric I’ve heard from propagandists in authoritarian China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Has Trump forgotten that the same media he so abhors enabled him to air his false claims about Barack Obama’s birthplace and urge Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails?

Trump will continue to deflect attention from his actions to the media reporting on them. He’ll keep throwing spaghetti at the wall; the danger is that eventually something may stick.

This column was originally published in The Boston Globe. It is being republished here with The Globe's permission.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the Newmark chair in journalism ethics. She has covered campaigns, coups and revolutions, reporting from the U.S. and 80 countries for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS, Politico Magazine and others.

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