Many Americans were appalled when President Trump called the news media “the enemy of the American People.”
And rightly so: It’s a phrase out of the autocrats’ handbook.
What got less attention was Trump’s answer to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who challenged the president about his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin — given how it’s widely acknowledged that the Russian president has caused the deaths of dissidents and journalists.
“He’s a killer,” O’Reilly said.
Trump shrugged it off.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” he said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Joel Simon, author and executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called it “the most chilling statement Trump has made about the media.”
And while no one is predicting car bombings or poisonings of American journalists, it’s not much of a stretch to see similarities between Trump and Putin’s attitude.
Both leaders want a compliant press and are willing to take action toward getting it — some, of course, more extreme than others.
Simon, who has been to Russia three times to investigate the deaths of journalists, says that Putin has accomplished that goal.
“Independent media have been eviscerated,” he said. “Russia has gone from having a flawed but dogged and independent media to one where critical voices have been silenced.”
In its first weeks, the Trump administration has found its own propaganda outlets and tried to undermine independent news outlets.
Before Trump’s first address to Congress last week, he gave Breitbart News (once led by Trump’s strategy chief, Stephen K. Bannon, and now practically the administration’s house organ) a lengthy exclusive interview. It resulted in docile stenography presented as news.
And the conspiracy-mongering Infowars website got an early scoop on the talk’s highlights — a reward, no doubt, for championing Trump at every turn. (This site, run by Alex Jones, has been the home for 9/11 truthers, birtherism and an early assertion that the Newtown, Conn., massacre of schoolchildren was a fraud.)
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been busy marginalizing legitimate news outlets at White House press briefings and disparaging them as “fake news.”
Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist, wrote a 2012 book called “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
In it, she quotes a Russian journalist on Putin: “I knew this was how he understood the word patriotism — just the way he had been taught in all those KGB schools: the country is as great as the fear it inspires, and the media should be loyal.”
A much-discussed New Yorker magazine piece, “Trump, Putin and the New Cold War,” explores this:
“Every aspect of the country’s political life, including the media, was brought under the ‘vertical of power’ that he constructed,” the authors report. One independently owned TV network, NTV — after satirizing Putin and reporting critically on him — was forced into line after its oligarch-owner’s offices were raided and he left Russia.
Russians, overwhelmingly, get their news from TV.
“Imagine you have two dozen TV channels and it is all Fox News,” the piece quotes former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov, now a Putin critic.
The tight control is effective: Putin has approval ratings of over 80 percent — ratings that Trump would, metaphorically speaking, kill for.
(Without suggesting equivalency with the extrajudicial deaths of Russian journalists or dissidents, it might be recalled that President Obama had a “kill list” for terrorists and that American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric, was assassinated in a 2011 U.S.-led drone strike in Yemen; his 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen, died two weeks later, “collateral damage,” in another drone strike, and, similarly, Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter died in the Trump-ordered commando raid last month.)
In Russia, the direct link between Putin and journalists’ deaths is hard to prove, Joel Simon told me. But there isn’t much doubt.
Anna Politkovskaya, poisoned and later gunned down in 2006, was one of those critical journalistic voices that will never be heard again. The Guardian called her death “the murder that killed free media in Russia.”
“It’s not Syria or Iraq, but there is a very high level of violence mixed with state repression,” Simon said. And, he added, that change happened swiftly after Putin’s rise, and has been a major factor in his tight hold on the country.
Trump’s admiration for Putin becomes even more troubling when paired with his own moves to stamp out independent journalism through disparagement, denial of access, favoritism and blacklisting.
“For Putin, there has been no greater obsession in controlling the culture than in controlling the media,” Simon said.
For America under Trump, that’s a cautionary tale.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.