The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s threats against the press may be toothless. But they’re far from harmless.

President Trump fields reporters’ questions last week. (Scalzo/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump vowed to change the libel laws to make it easier to win big lawsuits against news organizations. It never happened.

After the election, he pressured the FBI director to consider sending reporters to jail for publishing classified information. That was another non-starter.

And just last week, he suggested that a TV network have its broadcast license revoked because he objected to a news report. That isn't evenpossible under FCC rules; the agency licenses individual stations, not networks.

Trump keeps ranting about the dishonest news media. And reporters and editors keep doing their jobs, undaunted.

So there’s no problem and First Amendment champions should just calm down, right?

Stop overreacting to Trump's tweet-threats, counseled Jack Shafer of Politico last week, suggesting that, while not ignoring them, "we discount their value in the political marketplace down to the junk level."

As many have noted, Trump is actually more accessible than his predecessor — often answering reporters’ questions in informal settings, calling them on the phone and giving plenty of interviews (though mostly to his friends at Fox News).

What’s more, his Twitter feed means that we have a real-time understanding of the president’s thinking, such as it is. (Peter Baker of the New York Times, speaking last week at George Washington University, said that, “in this way, at least, it’s the most transparent presidency we have had in our lifetime,” and added, half-joking, that Trump’s tweets are “like the Nixon tapes, if they were played every night on the CBS News.”)

Still, it would be a mistake to see Trump’s anti-media threats as harmless. They’re anything but.

Consider a Turkish court's conviction last week of Wall Street Journal reporter Ayla Albayrak. It sentenced her to more than two years in prison, determining that she had engaged in terrorist propaganda by writing a news story.
"This was an unfounded criminal charge and wildly inappropriate conviction that wrongly singled out a balanced Wall Street Journal report," charged Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker. The article's purpose was "to provide objective and independent reporting on events in Turkey, and it succeeded."

The State Department issued a strong rebuke to Turkey: Freedom of expression, including for speech and the media, strengthens democracy and needs to be protected, it said.

Notably, it said, that includes “even speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable.”

Meanwhile, the executive-branch boss was lashing out at American news organizations for reporting that he found uncomfortable — or, as he prefers to put it, "fake."

"It is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it," Trump stormed. Brandishing a copy of the U.S. Constitution, Jake Tapper of CNN retorted that he'd done the investigation and found the answers. (The president later backed off a bit, saying he didn't really want to limit the media; he just wants journalists to be what he considers honest.)

Trump’s constant press attacks carry a worldwide price — they hurt America’s ability to stand for democratic freedoms around the world.

“When the president consistently speaks that way, there’s a loss of U.S. influence and credibility on matters of press freedom,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me.

As Simon sees it, the American government needs to be able to exert influence — and maintain the moral high ground — in all kinds of cases involving the news media.

American officials lean on a strong democratic reputation when they raise concerns about the treatment of the U.S. media around the globe, he said, “whether it’s the Chinese government’s withholding visas, or the Turkish authorities expelling Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum last December, or the ban on CNN en Espanol imposed in Venezuela.”

Turkey, nominally a democracy, has a disturbing record of human rights offenses — including throwing many journalists in jail.
But Trump keeps lavishing praise on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling him a great friend and (as with Vladi­mir Putin) awarding high marks for strong leadership. (Behind the scenes, Turkey and the United States have been in a bitter disagreement about the arrest of an employee of the American consulate in Istanbul.)

It may be tempting to shrug off Trump’s threats as nothing but venting — or to see them as a big slab of red meat to feed his base.

And it may also be tempting to say his fighting words don’t matter much because the worst threats haven’t come to fruition.

But even if Trump can’t really get a network’s broadcast license revoked or libel laws changed, he can still can — and does — undermine American values, both here and abroad, when he attacks the press.

And no amount of transparency-by-tweet or backslapping access for reporters can make up for that.

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