Donald Trump’s treatment of journalists and the press isn’t just offensive or rude or political theater. It is dangerous — and that is true whether or not “the media” is popular with the voting public. The fact is that the Freedom of the Press under our First Amendment is designed to guard our democracy most especially during those times when the press isn’t universally popular.
At a deeply strange news conference last week, Trump spent 40 minutes berating the press, calling one ABC News reporter “a sleaze.” He snidely told a CNN reporter: “You’re a real beauty.” During other campaign stops, Trump routinely bashes the press as “dishonest,” “disgusting,” “slime” and “scum.” Trump has called Fox News host Megyn Kelly “a bimbo.” He said NBC reporter Katy Tur is a “third-rate journalist.” Trump has used Twitter to belittle other reporters — all the while complaining bitterly about the press’ lack of appreciation for his many self-described accomplishments.
This has all become part of his standard campaign shtick and at his rallies, where most of his anti-press comments are met with wild applause from his supporters.
Trump has also said that, if elected, he said he plans to “loosen” the libel laws in the United States so that he can have an easier time suing news organizations.
Never mind that changing the libel laws is not something a president can do on his own. But Trump’s actions and views are clearly designed to send a chilling effect through the media. In fact, Trump has already demonstrated a willingness to go after reporters who expose details about him that he does not like.
He often threatens to sue reporters and at times has done so. In 2006, he filed a $5 billion lawsuit against author Timothy O’Brien and his publisher for understating Trump’s wealth. O’Brien reported that three people close to Trump estimated his worth to be between $150 million and $250 million. Trump said he told O’Brien he was worth between $4 billion and $6 billion.
The suit was dismissed in 2009, and the appeal was rejected in 2011.
A key defense against libel suits is reporting the truth.
Name the issue — his business practices, his treatment of women, tax returns, charitable giving, Trump University, Trump Wine or Trump Steaks — The Donald has consistently taken the view that scrutiny is itself unjustified. No one should question, they should just accept.
This would all be amusing and annoying if he were just another rich guy who wanted to manage his press coverage. But he is making the case that he should have the highest elective office in the land — and that disdain for the role of a free press in our society is acceptable for someone who could hold that role. Moreover, he is convincing large segments of the public that it’s acceptable too.
As the CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, I both understand and appreciate the role of a free press in a free society — and the fact that a free press is not always fun or pleasant. Journalists can be rude, and lazy and biased, just like anyone else. But the system as a whole only works if there are whole bunch of them chasing, checking, questioning and complaining.
The Founding Fathers had many, many complaints about the 18th Century press, but they also understood at a deep and fundamental level that a “managed” or “regulated” press would lead to tyranny. That is why Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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.”
To propel his own interests forward, Mr. Trump is now working hard to make the case to the public that a free press is an annoyance he — and we — can do without. More than anything he has said or done to date, that view should be seen as a clear and present danger to our free society.
David Chavern is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, a nonprofit organization representing nearly 2,000 newspapers and their multi-platform businesses in the United States and Canada.