Madison R. Wadsworth
It seems as though every day there is another article about the United States President, Donald Trump, calling reporters foul names, trying to bar partisan press from press conferences, or casually dismissing their findings by the now infamous phrase, “fake news.” Media, as one of the cornerstones of democracy because of its’ watchdog role, must be protected at all costs. Therefore, an attack on the media is an attack on democracy. Not only are citizens now wary of the news they are reading, but it is commonplace to dismiss information that does not line-up with one’s political beliefs. Although President Trump’s attempts to bar specific media outlets, such as CNN from press conferences, have thus far been unsuccessful, it has shown his openness to sidestep a big part of democracy. Many scholars see Donald Trump as a right-wing populist and potential autocrat — his treatment of the media has led to a decrease of the quality of the United States’ democracy in the last two years, and the next two years may not look any better.
According to an annual scale rating from Freedom House, from 2017 to 2018, the United States lowered the political rights score from a 1 to 2 and freedom from 1 to 1.5 (on a 1 to 7 scale, 1 being “most free” or “best”). Out of 100, the US has an aggregate score of 86, which is the same as Belize but is immediately following Latvia and Greece at 87. In their analysis of the state of the country, Donald Trump’s treatment the media and judiciary played a big role in the score reduction. The score reduction also entails Trump’s ignoring traditional norms of “ethics and transparency”, which they cite as him making inflammatory and inaccurate statements.
At this point, it is almost expected that he will make up numbers, exaggerate, or outright lie in any speech he gives. The Washington Post even went as far as to try and keep track of how many “false claims” the president has made. As of the end of March 2019, for about his first two years in office, they report that number at about 9,000. Even though president Trump is the one who seems to be spreading alternative facts, he has turned it back onto the media, naming them the “enemy of the American people.”
President Trump’s offenses in this “war on the press” are either things he has said, or actions he has taken. The things he has said regarding the media are particularly worrisome. In an interview with CBS News, Lesley Stahl, a long time journalist, claims that in an off-the-record interview, President Trump when asked about his “war on the press” said, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” Whether true or not, it would certainly not be surprising. In regards to being a threat to democracy, he calls the media’s investigation of Russian intervention in the elections a “witch-hunt.” To his followers, this makes it look like the media is targeting him, that he is being picked on, and therefore they should not listen to the negative news about him reported by the media. Even worse, it makes them actively reject news that does not support him, deeming it “fake news.”
Trump has taken some serious direct and indirect actions against the media which have hurt democracy. There are countless examples of the President going after specific journalists, news media outlets, or even praising violence against them. He has tried to suppress the media’s rights, specifically those of partisan press companies, to sit in on daily press conferences. Jim Acosta, a CNN reporter, was asking Trump questions about immigration when a White House staffer tried to physically take the microphone away from him. His immediate reaction was to push her arm away. In a video officially released by the White House, the doctored film makes it appear as though he aggressively shoved her away, while in reality, shown by the undoctored footage, that was not the case. Trump is also consistently rude to the press, calling them names or undermining their intelligence and/or motives. In a more recent example, Trump said to a White House ABC reporter, “I know you’re not thinking. You never do.”
Consequently, this has changed the way his followers view the media. In an article by The Hill, they state, “In an April survey conducted by Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of Republican respondents said the news media was better described as “the enemy of the people” instead of “an important part of democracy.” Just 37% of Republicans surveyed agreed with the latter characterization.” The implications of this have been instances of violence against journalists and politicians. Within the last two weeks of October 2018, CNN and other Democrat politicians received pipe bombs in the mail. Donald Trump also praised a Congressman for body-slamming a reporter. Many of his followers have lost all respect for the media because of his actions.
The media is an essential part of any democracy. It provides the information that citizens need to be informed to have free and fair elections. While an objective observer might say that in the United States the media does an adequate job of informing and fulfilling its “watch-dog” and fact-checking roles, Donald Trump has painted the opposite picture of a lying and deceiving media who depicts him in a bad light. He is simply a good guy getting targeted, he would claim. The consequence is that those who believe that narrative, are finding it hard to decipher from “fake news” and real journalism. This further solidifies their support for Trump and when they read something they do not agree with, they simply call it “fake news.” There is no room for discussion or compromise. Outright lies are being spread all over Facebook every day, spreading false information and polarizing an already polar political climate. This also makes it hard for people who do still believe in the sanctity of the media because even they do not know what to trust anymore. Another consequence is that nearly half of all Republicans say that the president should be able to shut down news outlets who “engage in bad behavior.”
This should be alarming to all democratic citizens, as the right of the press and the right of participation are vital to democracy. It’s also a slippery slope to stripping away civil liberties of people or businesses that politicians don’t like. However, Trump would like to lessen their ability to participate, as shown by his rhetoric about them, and attempts to quiet and discredit them. Levitsky and Way say that one of the four arenas of democratic contestation is the media because of their “critical watchdog role by investigating and exposing government malfeasance.” This is exactly what the United States media has tried to do. However, they are called the enemy for this by the person who should be praising their value. Another important aspect of democracy is the rule of law, which includes an even playing field. An unbiased and trusted media is necessary to provide this. Not only does the media need to be able to (and should be encouraged to) report on wrongdoings of the President, but the citizens should be able to trust those things and not feel as though they should disregard them as “fake news” because they come from a partisan group different from their own, as Trump is constantly encouraging.
At this time, there does not appear to be any glaring red flags that the United States will cease from being a democracy in the near future. However, there is cause for concern. The quality of our democracy, indicated by Freedom House scores and other indicators all seem to be decreasing, many citing this almost “war on the press” as a key component. As of now, Trump has not shut down any news outlets, but the fact that nearly half of Republicans would support that is a frightening statistic. Trump has only been president for two years, meaning that he potentially still has a long time to undermine the press and its importance.
Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, argue there are four things that we should be worried about, two of them being: when a politician “tolerates or encourages violence” or “indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Violence against the media (and other forms of violence outside the scope of this argument) have been condoned by the President. From trying to bar reporters from press meetings to tweeting “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” Donald Trump called the media the “Enemy of the American People” but to those that love our American democracy, his “war on the press,” is more worrisome, as the media is essential to democracy.
PHOTO OF DONALD TRUMP AFTER THE LAS VEGAS CNN DEBATE BY ERIK KABIK PHOTOGRAPHY/MEDIAPUNCH/IPX.