“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right . . . and a desire to know . . . the characters and conduct of their rulers.” – President John Adams 
While recent scholarship on democracy in the United States has highlighted the potential for erosion of democratic norms through subtle executive aggrandizement , the nature of stealth authoritarianism requires a careful analysis of additional institutions of political power as well. The Trump administration routinely denounces media outlets with populist rhetoric, but these denunciations are rarely backed by government action. President Trump’s attempt to use executive powers to impede a merger of a critical outlet’s parent’s company and attempt to revoke White House press credentials from this same outlet’s employee were both ultimately unsuccessful. The current administration’s combativeness with select media outlets is also not unprecedented; President Obama maintained a hostile relationship with Fox News throughout his presidency. Perhaps this media environment is merely a reflection of hyperpolarized political culture? In any case, actions by the Trump administration against critical reporters have been limited and ineffectual. The indictment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, however, highlights a potential stealth authoritarian threat to the norm of press freedom: the federal bureaucracy.
The federal case against Assange for “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” is in relation to his publication of classified government documents in 2010. This case has been carried out despite President Trump’s history of favorable comments toward Wikileaks (“I love Wikileaks”). The indictment accuses Assange of facilitating and encouraging the illegal acquisition of classified information by Manning, a source later imprisoned for this act until receiving a commuted sentence by President Obama. The focus on facilitation is particularly concerning to one New Yorker columnist since many practices detailed in the indictment are “clearly legitimate journalistic practices” when obtaining information from a source . Regarding the accusation that Assange provided hacking assistance via text, another New Yorker writer notes that “federal prosecutors have known about this text exchange for many years,” yet “didn’t bring any charges,” suggesting selective and peculiar timing . The Obama administration appears to have considered the implications for press freedom and to have decided against prosecution of Wikileaks; the Trump administration chose the alternative.
Legal scholar Ozan Varol describes the “use of nonpolitical crimes to prosecute political dissidents” as a “popular” strategy for stealth authoritarians . This type of prosecution is “legally accurate” but “selective.” The Wikileaks prosecution appears selective since journalistic organizations commonly publish illegally obtained or leaked information without fear of prosecution. The scrutiny of Wikileaks importantly has the potential to impact the broader media environment by creating a chilling effect through precedent. The director of the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project stated that “any prosecution” involving Wikileak’s publishing efforts could indeed “open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”  These stealth authoritarian tactics by the federal agencies burdened by Wikileak’s reporting might, perhaps more worryingly, eventually enable a stealth authoritarian president to take vigorous action against critical press.
Varol further elaborates that the main goal of censorship measures, such as libel laws, is to “[raise] the costs of critical commentary” regarding stealth authoritarian actions . This indictment did not invoke libel law, but it has nonetheless successfully raised the cost of vigorous critical reporting associated with unhindered journalism and active sourcing methods. Even when ostensibly behaving legally, those seeking to collect and publish information can still be targeted by vague crimes like “facilitation” or “conspiracy.” The deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists argues that through this type of prosecution, “the U.S. government could set out broad legal arguments about journalists soliciting information or interacting with sources that could have chilling consequences for investigative reporting and the publication of information of public interest.” 
Constitutional protections alongside a transparent journalistic culture, regardless of the motives or character of the publishers, are integral to American democracy. A president’s rhetorical combativeness with a critical press is hardly stealthy or authoritarian, but the selective prosecution of any publisher encourages the erosion of norms of press freedom and weakens voter access to information about incumbent performance. Varol, Stealth Authoritarianism, 1693  Roberts et al., The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.  Cassidy, John. “The Indictment of Julian Assange Is a Threat to Journalism.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-indictment-of-julian-assange-is-a-threat-to-journalism.  Ozan Varol, Stealth Authoritarianism, 1707  Stewart, Emily. “Is Julian Assange’s Arrest a Threat to Freedom of the Press? Depends on Whom You Ask.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/12/18308186/assange-arrest-freedom-of-press.  Varol, Stealth Authoritarianism, 1679