Pence made it one day after he forcefully confronted Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, over the continued imprisonment of two Reuters reporters who documented the military’s role in the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country, also known as Burma, for neighboring Bangladesh. He urged her “multiple times” to pardon the two reporters, a White House official told reporters.
“In America, we believe in our democratic institutions and our ideals, including a free and independent press,” Pence said. “The arrest and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans.”
When reporters pointed out that the Trump administration was in a high-profile fight with CNN over the revocation of a White House press pass for correspondent Jim Acosta, Pence rejected the connection: “There’s no comparison whatsoever between disagreements over decorum at the White House and the imprisonment of the two reporters in Myanmar.”
Pence said “the administration” has stood for a free and independent press. What about the president? The story that unfolds is schizophrenic.
It’s easy to find examples of Pence publicly defending the media. Indeed, an aide notes that when he was in Congress, after the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Pence wrote and co-sponsored reporter shield legislation that would protect journalists’ ability to not reveal sources. In 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review called Pence “journalism’s best ally in the fight to protect anonymous sources.”
As vice president, Pence has often publicly reiterated his strong support of press freedom:
- In an interview with Politico’s “Playbook Live,” Oct. 30: “I do believe that the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press. That was enshrined in our Bill of Rights, it was at the core of the American founding, and it’s a core American principle.”
- On Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Oct. 15: “Any attack against an innocent individual should be offensive to any American. But an attack on a journalist is an offense to a free and independent press. … Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press and human rights. The free world deserves answers.”
- In Washington, July 26: “When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms — freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves — are imperiled.”
Moreover, on numerous occasions, Pence’s staff pushed back against foreign governments that sought to limit press access for U.S. journalists, such as in Korea, Singapore and Egypt.
Meanwhile, the State Department provided the Fact Checker with an impressive list of more than 25 statements made by senior officials on press freedom.
“The United States is a steadfast supporter of freedom of the press around the world. It is a cornerstone of democracy, and is essential to transparency and accountability. The media plays a critical role in promoting vibrant debate, informing citizens, and providing a forum to express differing points of view, particularly on behalf of individuals whose voices are not heard in society,” said spokeswoman Heather Nauert, a former journalist.
“In too many places around the world, the press courageously practice their profession in the face of great danger,” she added. “We routinely speak out about the grave injustices reporters confront, and do not shy away from calling on foreign governments — both privately and publicly — to end excessive restrictions on press freedom; this work is continuous, even when our diplomatic efforts are not always in the headlines.”
Nauert noted that the State Department assesses press freedom in countries in its annual human rights report and has worked to highlight the plight of Uighur journalists in China and the selective targeting of reporters in Russia and has called for the immediate release of the Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar.
But the tenor of an administration is set by the president. And the president’s words — the phrases he utters and the tweets he makes — tell a different story, according to a comprehensive record maintained by factba.se. His commentary about the media is virtually all about how it affects him, especially if he thinks the news coverage is negative. One searches in vain for statements that mirror the language of Pence or State Department officials.
The tone was set by a tweet President Trump issued in the final months of the 2016 campaign: “It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false!”
Actually, that’s the core of the First Amendment. News organizations have a responsibility to get it right — and good ones correct their mistakes — but as the Supreme Court made clear in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), a public figure must be able to prove a news organization knew a statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether it was false before libel can be considered. The 9-0 ruling setting a standard of “actual malice” notably came in the context of the civil rights movement, as Southern officials repeatedly filed defamation suits to thwart coverage of civil rights.
Once he became president, Trump railed against “fake news,” which he has deemed the “enemy of the people.” In a tweet nearly a month after taking office, Trump name-checked four television networks and the New York Times as “fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.” These are all well-established, professional news organizations, with high standards and a commitment to correcting errors. But Trump has falsely said they make up sources.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that when he uses the term “fake news,” he is not decrying the news media at large, just what he appears to view as negative news stories.
“They take ‘fake’ media off,” Trump told Breitbart News in a Feb. 27, 2017, interview. “They say ‘the media is the enemy of — well, they didn’t say the ‘fake media.’ I didn’t say the media is the enemy — I said the ‘fake media.’ They take the word ‘fake’ out and all of a sudden it’s like I’m against — there are some great reporters like you.”
Or, as Trump put it more recently, in a July interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News: “Well, when I say enemy of the people, I’m not talking about all of the media. I’m talking about there is a big percentage of the media, when you look at CNN, how false their reports are. When you look at NBC and some of the others, when you read the New York Times, it’s just a story after story after story that’s just a negative spin.”
The problem is that presidential words have consequences — and reverberate around the world. The nuances that Trump claims he is making appear to be misunderstood overseas. Now, all sorts of odious regimes use the expression — including Myanmar, where a government official said: “There are no such thing as Rohingya. It’s fake news.” In Libya, after a CNN report showed migrants being sold into slavery, Libyan officials used a tweet by Trump calling the network “fake news” in an attempt to discredit the story.
Unlike President Barack Obama, Trump has not issued statements on World Press Freedom Day. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley did.) Reporters without Borders, in its ranking of press freedoms, has downgraded the United States to 45th place, citing the president’s rhetoric as undermining trust in journalists and subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse. In October, Trump even celebrated a lawmaker who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter as “my guy.”
In August, when Ivanka Trump said that she did not believe the media is enemy of the people, Trump tweeted that a “large percentage” of the media was fake news: “They asked my daughter Ivanka whether or not the media is the enemy of the people. She correctly said no. It is the FAKE NEWS, which is a large percentage of the media, that is the enemy of the people!”
“It’s frightening,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “We are getting away from core democratic practices and beliefs here.” She said that Trump’s attacks on the media have polarized the nation and that his “language has emboldened people to behave badly” in other countries.
Dalglish noted that Pence has long been a strong supporter of independent media and that other parts of the administration — such as in the State Department and other agencies — also continue to promote press freedoms. “But it’s certainly not going on in the Oval Office,” she said.
Chris Wallace, in his “Fox News Sunday” interview that aired Nov. 18, sought to pin Trump down on the fine line he appears to draw between “fake news” and the media. Trump asserted that “nobody believes in the First Amendment more than I do” and that “I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong.” When Wallace noted that “leaders in authoritarian countries like Russia, China, Venezuela now repress the media using your words,” Trump rejected any connection and passed up the opportunity to reaffirm his belief in freedom of the press. “I can’t talk for other people, I can only talk for me,” he said.
Bill McRaven, the former head of U.S. Special Operations who commanded the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, has stated that Trump’s “enemy of the people” language was “the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.” When Wallace quoted McRaven, Trump falsely responded that McRaven was a Hillary Clinton supporter and that “everybody in Pakistan knew he [bin Laden] was there.”
On the rare occasions the president has spoken about freedom of the press, it is in reference to himself.
On Nov. 16, for instance, Trump dropped in the phrase in the context of reporters being polite to him: “You have to practice decorum. You were there; you understood, and you understand. We want total freedom of the press; that’s very important to me. It’s more important to me than anybody would believe. But you have to act with respect. You’re in the White House.”
For what it’s worth, Pence has defended the president’s tone, saying that Trump, too, believes that freedom of the press is a “core American principle” and that he’s only calling out reports that twist the truth. “President Trump and I are deeply committed to a free and independent press,” he told Politico. “We also are committed to the freedom of speech and the ability of public men and women to call out the press when we think that they’re not calling it straight.”
The Pinocchio Test
Pence is a part of the Trump administration, and his statements promoting press freedom, especially his comments on the Reuters reporters and Khashoggi, are noteworthy. The State Department also has highlighted press freedom.
That’s one arm of the government. But it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room — the man Pence and State Department officials work for. The president repeatedly uses phrasing that belittles and demeans the news media, so much so that “fake news” is now a tool used by autocrats and dictators.
The president from time to time drops in a reference to “freedom of the press,” but it’s when he is talking about how he is treated by the media. There’s never been a stand-alone statement, fulsome and complete, like the statements that effortlessly are made by Pence, especially in foreign settings. No one has a bigger megaphone than the U.S. president, so the laudable efforts of the rest of the government often are smothered by the fury from the White House.
[Update: The day this fact check was published, President Trump issued his statement on the Khashoggi murder, pledging to continue to work with Saudi Arabia. This was another missed opportunity for the president to make a statement about press freedom. He did not even mention that Khashoggi was a journalist -- or that killing journalists is not acceptable.]
Pence, speaking just for himself and the State Department, would earn a Geppetto. But speaking for the administration at large, his claim is worthy of Three Pinocchios.
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