Between dodging criticisms from San Juan’s Carmen Yulín Cruz, exchanging verbal blows with Kim Jong-un, and maintaining a healthy golfing schedule; Donald Trump has managed to escalate his ongoing war with the American media. The latest attack on the press comes on the heels of an NBC News report criticizing Trump’s comments on increasing the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Taking to Twitter, the president denounced the report as “fake news” and “pure fiction, made up to demean,” questioning whether or not such sources should be stripped of their broadcasting licenses.
Regardless of whether or not a national news titan such as NBC can be taken down by a sitting president’s Tweet, the fact remains that media censorship and manipulation is a key tool in the shed of an authoritarian in democracy’s clothing.
December 2014 saw the launch of Myrotvorets (or “Peacemaker”). As its name would suggest, Myrotvorets goal is to promote a more peaceful Ukraine; its primary method of peacemaking? The leaking of somewhere between 4,000-7,000 journalists’ personal data. The claim of Myrotvorets and its supporters is that those being targeted are enemies of Ukraine (i.e. foreign agents, separatists, and other potential threats to the nationalist political climate). Because of its “patriotic” agenda, the Ukrainian government has been supportive of Myrotvorets and its efforts. This would not be so troubling if these efforts had not led to the assassination of some journalists just days after their information was published on the database. The use of censorship and strict monitoring of exactly what information is released to the public (and just how that information is spun) has driven journalism to the local level – much of it done through independent bloggers. This shift, however, is not without its own set of dangers, as independents on both sides (radical nationalists and separatists) have been the targets of violence from the opposition.
While a series of reactionary tweets does not necessarily equate to a hit-list of America’s most prominent journalists, the fact remains that such statements do not exist in a vacuum. While many big-name publications have, since Trump’s election, dedicated specific areas to fact-checks and pointing out inconsistencies in rhetoric; these publications have already long since earned the ire of Trump and, by extension, his most loyal supporters.
When criticizing these statements – particularly in blue states and/or liberal university campuses – it is easy to forget that there are several people outside of these discourse bubbles who are still relatively supportive of the Administration’s actions and its rhetoric. Further, Trump’s obsessive use of Twitter has changed the way that information is relayed to the American public via the president.
There is a certain level of irony that arises when Donald Trump tweets that “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” a mere hour following a tweet plugging an interview with Sean Hannity done for Fox News. Forgetting the fact that NBC – the cause of this tweet – would be considered a non-network news broadcaster (a better example of a network news source being Fox News, one of the better examples of a partisan news source); the claim that partisan news is only now being used as a tool against a sitting president is simply untrue. Even if the publications on the Trump Administration’s Fake News Watchlist were using misinformation and out-of-context soundbites to further their own agenda, that would not make them the first to do so. For example, Trump and his supporters seem to forget the insistence that President Barack Obama produce a birth certificate throughout his presidency (this movement spearheaded by Trump and broadcast on Fox News). Further, the use of such yellow journalism would not necessarily warrant the shutting down of the publisher (or the punishing of the author). However, in this case, many articles being shot down as fake news have been backed by factual evidence (from aerial shots of the Trump inauguration to video clips showing inconsistencies in statements made by Trump from the campaign trail to more current rallies).
While American journalism has not been forced to underground blogs, the continued efforts of the Trump administration in squashing unfavorable media does have its fair share of consequences. Months’ worth of unrest and protest culminated in Charlottesville, VA in mid-August of this year. The Unite the Right Rally was a war cry for angry young white men brandishing tiki torches and Nazi-era slogans, many of whom made clear their alliance to the sitting president. The association of Donald Trump and white supremacy was only intensified after former’s statement that “both sides” were to blame and “both sides” were made up of good and bad people. Among the marginalized voices that made their anger known following the refusal of the White House to issue a clear condemnation of those at Charlottesville was Jemele Hill, a host on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Hill, a Black woman, in addition to pointing out Trump’s lack of qualifications, called the election “the direct result of white supremacy.” While ESPN was quick to distance themselves from Hill and her views, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders still claimed that these and other statements made by Hill should have been a fireable offense.
It is important to note that Hill, a sports commentator, made these comments on her Twitter account and not on the network she represents and, as stated, ESPN made it clear in a statement that they neither agreed with nor supported her statements. While it is true that Hill is a public figure and is not immune to scrutiny, her views were established as her own (much like the countless masses posting their thoughts on the internet via blogs and social media). It’s one thing to attempt to dictate what facts are “acceptable” to be published and accepted as fact, but there is something to be said about a White House official calling for the termination of a TV personality’s job for non-threatening comments made about a sitting president.
Such implications are the beginnings of a slippery slope the likes of which American democracy is not prepared to slide down.
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Victoria, your post raises an interesting and complex question: to what extent does Trump’s “fake news” tirade threaten our democracy? Fortunately, the “ire” of Trump is not the ire of Myrotvorets. At the very least, no journalists have been coerced into pulling back their publications—and it seems that many members of more liberal-leaning media have been well protected. Trump’s rants against news companies have stayed on Twitter and in speeches, rather than penetrating the law. Even if not, questions of free speech and freedom of the press are often delegated to the Supreme Court, which is unlikely to be persuaded by Trump’s “fake news” rants. And even in cases like Hill’s, ESPN’s policies (even their unfair ones) have stayed the same since before Trump’s presidency.
While we can appreciate the way our institutions have protected the civil liberties of journalists, we can also admit that we might not totally be in the clear. Firstly, like you pointed, not all limits on free expression come from laws. If ever there are isolated episodes of violence or threats against journalism, Trump is unlikely to commit to stopping it. Trump’s government could still stay neutral while allowing the citizens to act for him.
Moreover, Trump’s “fake news” campaign limits his administration’s vertical accountability. Lust and Waldner define vertical accountability as the ability of non-state actors (like the media) to make public the actions and decisions of public officials. If supporters of Trump are persuaded into denying information on his actions and decisions, then how will they know what is going on in their own government? A situation like this gives Trump a pass to act without ramifications, and supposing Trump did something undemocratic, the treatment of anti-Trump journalism would be a major cause for concern.