President Trump made two things clear Wednesday when he told reporters gathered in the Oval Office that “it's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
One: He does not value a free press.
Two: He does not even understand how a free press works.
It is simply untrue that “the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” News outlets that defame or invade the privacy of the people they cover can be sued into extinction. Just ask Gawker, which went bankrupt and shuttered last year after losing a case brought by Hulk Hogan.
Rolling Stone, which already has settled one libel suit resulting from a retracted report about sexual assault at the University of Virginia, put its majority ownership stake on the block last month, two days before a federal appeals court said a second lawsuit could move forward.
The consequences of bad reporting can be severe — contrary to the president's suggestion that journalists operate with total impunity.
Even when mistakes are minor and there is no legal risk, news outlets often hold themselves — and one another — accountable. Hours before Trump made his remarks, for example, I called out MSNBC for misleading language in two social media posts. The network promptly acknowledged the flaws and removed the posts.
Media companies are imperfect and sometimes stubborn, but they are subject to legal and professional checks that the president conveniently ignored on Wednesday.
Trump's position on the freedom that the press does enjoy is that there is too much of it. His assertion that “people should look into it” echoed a tweet posted earlier in the day, in which he mused about challenging NBC's broadcast license, and one posted last week, in which he raised the specter of a congressional investigation of “the Fake News Networks in OUR country.”
With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
Why Isn't the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2017
Just to give you a sense of how extreme Trump's view really is: His own spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who can rip the media with the best of them — declined in a briefing last Thursday to reinforce the idea that a congressional probe could be warranted. Instead, she focused on Trump's frustration with news outlets' coverage priorities and, when pressed about whether the president really wants an investigation, suggested he might not have been serious.
“I don't know that that's the case,” Sanders said, “but I do think that we should call on all media to a higher standard.”
I don't know, either. As I have written before, if Trump were serious about, say, weakening libel protections for journalists — something he talked about as a candidate — the best way to follow through would be to nominate federal judges willing to reverse decades of legal precedent. His pick for the Supreme Court, Neil M. Gorsuch, didn't fit the bill.
Trump's inaction doesn't mean that he isn't hostile to the First Amendment, however. It might just mean that pressuring the NFL to tell those “son of a b----" football players to stand for the national anthem was higher on his priority list.