When Donald Trump first started threatening the role of a free press in the United States, journalists found comfort in the institutional durability of the First Amendment. It turns out that, although Trump promised to “open up” libel laws so that public figures — like himself, of course — could more easily sue media organizations, he can’t just snap his fingers and do so. It turns out that Trump’s fantasy about yanking broadcast licenses is just that. And it turns out that half-baked attempts by Trump’s people to pull the press passes of undesirable White House reporters don’t pass muster in the federal courts.

Praise checks and balances.

But observe their shortcomings: In a stunning essay published on Monday, New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger observes how Trump’s “fake news” epidemic has spread around the globe, to the detriment of the very activities protected in the United States under the First Amendment. The issue has been a steady focus for the 39-year-old Sulzberger, who took over as publisher in early 2018; he has met at least twice with President Trump to press him on the impact of his anti-media rhetoric on the pursuit of journalism worldwide.

SULZBERGER: As I’ve talked to my colleagues around the globe … particularly working in countries where a free press is an already tenuous thing, they say that they are increasingly of the belief that your rhetoric is creating a climate in which dictators and tyrants are able to employ your words in suppressing the free press …
TRUMP: Would you say more so now than over the last five years?
SULZBERGER: Yes.
TRUMP: Right now? I mean, more so now than even a year ago?
SULZBERGER: Yes. And I think —
TRUMP: I’m not happy to hear that.

If Trump wasn’t happy to hear that news, imagine his despair upon sampling Sulzberger’s new essay, headlined, “The Growing Threat to Journalism Around the World.” Not only does the piece — which was delivered as an address at Brown University — advance irrefutable arguments about the harm from Trump’s media posture, it also adds a few items of news. Like this one:

To give you a sense of what this retreat looks like on the ground, let me tell you a story I’ve never shared publicly before. Two years ago, we got a call from a United States government official warning us of the imminent arrest of a New York Times reporter based in Egypt named Declan Walsh. Though the news was alarming, the call was actually fairly standard. Over the years, we’ve received countless such warnings from American diplomats, military leaders and national security officials.
But this particular call took a surprising and distressing turn. We learned the official was passing along this warning without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration. Rather than trying to stop the Egyptian government or assist the reporter, the official believed, the Trump administration intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out. The official feared being punished for even alerting us to the danger.

The upshot? The Times couldn’t “count on our own government to prevent the arrest or help free Declan if he were imprisoned.” So it requested help from Walsh’s native country, Ireland. They took care of things.

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Eighteen months later, another of our reporters, David Kirkpatrick, arrived in Egypt and was detained and deported in apparent retaliation for exposing information that was embarrassing to the Egyptian government. When we protested the move, a senior official at the United States Embassy in Cairo openly voiced the cynical worldview behind the Trump administration’s tolerance for such crackdowns. “What did you expect would happen to him?” he said. “His reporting made the government look bad.”

The dossier on the ravages of “fake news” hyperbole is growing, as Sulzberger documents: “The phrase has been used to jail journalists in Cameroon, to suppress stories about corruption in Malawi, to justify a social media blackout in Chad, to prevent overseas news organizations from operating in Burundi,” he writes. “It has been used by the leaders of our longtime allies, like Mexico and Israel. It has been used by longtime rivals, like Iran, Russia and China.”

Thanks to Sulzberger, we know for a fact that Trump has been told about these dangers. It was a much-needed warning, too. Asked whether he was aware of the “broad consequences” of his actions, Trump responded, “The person, honestly, that’s been most suggestive of that is you, more so than others.”

The chilling disclosures in Sulzberger’s essay recall a point that this blog has made previously in this very context: That the First Amendment is more than a legal protection for journalists and citizens; it’s a cultural value whose resonance transcends the U.S. institutions entrusted with upholding it. Here’s an important thought from University of Virginia law professor Frederick Schauer to this effect:

Journalists couch not only their claims for access, but also much of their entire mission, in First Amendment terms. Academics even at private universities frame their pleas for academic freedom in the language of the First Amendment, just as students at those universities who feel their speech has been restricted make explicit recourse to the First Amendment in articulating their complaints. Librarians see the First Amendment as informing pretty much their complete raison d’etre, and artists and writers commonly use the First Amendment to frame their complaints against publishers, galleries, and even private museums. In these and countless other domains, a wide range of demands and platforms take on a First Amendment coloring, and not in any way very much connected at all with existing constitutional doctrine.

As Sulzberger documents, the cultural reach of the First Amendment is retreating worldwide, with journalists suffering the consequences. The message has been sent, and it can’t be retracted.

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