by William H. Freivogel
President Donald J. Trump can spend his entire presidency threatening the press, calling it the enemy, branding real news fake and fake news real. He can tweet crude attacks on female journalists and post nonsensical videos like the one of him beating up CNN in a parody of Wrestlemania.
But he never will succeed in diminishing the power of the press to hold him to account, nor will he diminish the First Amendment protection that the Constitution and an independent judiciary guarantee to the press as a check on presidential power.
The only thing that President Trump will diminish is himself as he cheapens the highest office in the land and the symbol of American democracy and might.
But many people are worried.
Over the weekend, I was at a party on a front porch in North Carolina enjoying the fireflies and the company. A group of musicians wondered out loud whether Trump could undermine the press and stifle dissent as authoritarians do in other countries.
The next day, Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times’ excellent media columnist, wrote a gloomy Independence Day piece stating “one of the pillars of our 241-year-old republic – the First Amendment – is under near-daily assault from the highest levels of the government.”
Rutenberg had plenty of examples:
– Trump’s CNN attack parody.
– Trump’s crude tweet describing Mika Brezinski “bleeding badly from a facelift.”
– Trump’s veiled threat toward Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon and the Washington Post: “The #AmazonWashingtonPost, sometimes referred to as the guardian of Amazon not paying internet taxes (which they should) is FAKE NEWS!”
– Sean Hannity’s suggestion that reporters be required to submit questions to the White House in writing and Newt Gingrich’s call to close the White House press room to the media altogether because they have become “a danger to the country right now.” http://www.mediaite.com/online/gingrich-trump-needs-to-close-white-house-press-room-because-the-media-is-corrupt/
– The incendiary NRA commentary of former St. Louisan and conservative radio host Dana Loesch saying liberals “use their media to assassinate real news” leading to a “violence of lies” that needs to be combated with “the clenched fists of truth.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtGOQFf9VCE
And that was just last week.
Almost every week of his short presidency Trump has found a way to demean himself and cheapen the presidency.
He has done it when he lies, as with his claim that President Obama tapped Trump Tower. He has done it when he tells the truth, as when he said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired FBI director James B. Comey.
He does it when he calls reliable news organizations such as The New York Times and Washington Post “fake” and then treats conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones and Hannity, as reputable.
He does it when he calls the Russia investigation fake news in the face of the unanimous intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election to try to help elect Trump, thus subverting the most important quadrennial act of the most important democracy in history.
But Americans need not fear Trump will scare off professional journalists. The tireless work of the Times, Post and other mainstream media dispels that fear. Every journalistic instinct is to challenge politicians who abuse power. Bullies like Trump don’t frighten journalists, they inspire them to dig deeper.
Nor does Trump have power to undermine the constitutional protection that the First Amendment explicitly provides the press.
The First Amendment protection for the press has grown steadily through American history as the Supreme Court has recognized broader and broader protections for all forms of media.
There was a time when newspaper editors criticizing President John Adams were jailed. When Abraham Lincoln had draft resisters arrested and newspapers censored. When socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs could be locked up for advocating resistance to the draft during World War I. When burning an American flag could get a protester jailed. When the Nixon administration could try to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War. And when Southern segregationists could threaten the national press with expensive libel trials before sympathetic juries to make it too expensive to cover the evils of segregation.
Thanks to the Pentagon Papers decision of 1971, the government can’t stop publication of national security secrets absent “direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to the nation.” Thanks to New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, politicians’ ability to use libel suits to intimidate the press is mostly a thing of the past. And there is nothing Trump can do about it because the courts can be counted on to enforce the constitutional standard protecting the press.
President Ronald Reagan is well remembered for speaking eloquently about America as a shining city on the hill. How sad the person elected to protect that shining city has dimmed its bright promise.
I offered a toast to my friends in North Carolina on this 4th of July to be grateful we live in a country that has a free and fearless press.