Under Attack: The Press in the Era of Trump

The White House Photo of the Day: 5/19/17 President Donald Trump and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos participate in a joint press conference. Photo: Public Domain

By Finn Tenzin Hamre-Myers, Age, 14

Attacks on the media have become commonplace under the leadership of President Donald Trump and have become a signature part of his administration. Insults such as “fake news,” “enemy of the people” and “failing” are used to describe the media, particularly when they are critical of him. But delegitimizing journalism doesn’t just impact journalists, it also impacts democracy as a whole. Ethical and factual journalism allows citizens to make informed decisions and keep their government and other powerful figures accountable. As Mahendra Ved, the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association in India, put it, “Without journalism, there is no democracy.”

Verbal attacks aren’t the only way that President Trump has attacked the media. In 2017 he suggested to then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists who published classified information. In 2018 he also removed CNN reporter Jim Acosta from White House press briefings under false allegations that he had attacked a White House intern. “I do think … that this is a test for all of us,”   Acosta said on the Anderson Cooper 360 show. “I think they’re trying to shut us down.”

President Trump’s latest attack on press freedom is seen in the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in April 2019. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the evidence used to arrest him was known to the Obama administration; however, officials ultimately said they would not prosecute Assange because of the possible consequences for press freedom. While Julian Assange is a controversial figure, journalists have voiced their concern at what prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act will mean for the future of investigative journalism in the United States. CPJ also noted that the language of the case seems to criminalize normal journalistic activities. Barton Gellman, who led the Washington Post‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the Snowden documents, told CPJ, “If asking questions and protecting a source are cast as circumstantial evidence of guilt, we’ll be crossing a dangerous line.”

The media also came under scrutiny recently following the findings of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Russian interference in the U.S. election. President Trump called the investigation a “witch hunt”—harkening back to President Nixon’s language during the Watergate era. Just recently President Trump once again voiced his disdain for the media, calling on the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke the New York Times and Washington Post’s Pulitzer for their coverage of the Russia investigation.

For people who lived through the Nixon era, this treatment of the media might seem like history repeating itself. In the 1970s President Richard Nixon was under public scrutiny for his involvement in scandals like Watergate. In response, he infamously referred to the press as “the enemy.” He also singled out particular publications that held him to account, such as the Washington Post, which he banned from the White House except for press conferences, after they reported on his connections to Watergate.

“The fact that a president would be willing and able to use his power to create a climate of fear, smear opponents, and literally shut down his American citizens through ruthless action—remains just as important today,” writes CNN analyst Julian Zelizer in the Atlantic. “Right now, Trump is trying to create the same kind of toxic atmosphere that Nixon produced.”

The president delegitimizing the media is having a major impact on society’s trust of the press. A 2018 Monmouth University study states that “More than 3-in-4 Americans believe that traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report ‘fake news.’”

Despite endless attacks, press outlets continue to work hard to report the truth. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The African-American investigative journalist and early leader in the civil rights movement, Ida B. Wells, also famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Democracy in the United States depends on journalism that highlights the truth. Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions and stand up for what they believe is right.

Glossary Terms:

Delegitimize: To remove credibility.

WikiLeaks: An organization that publishes classified information and leaked documents to the public.

Pulitzer: A prestigious prize given to writers and journalists.

Snowden documents: A collection of leaked National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence documents describing multiple surveillance activities by the U.S. government.

Watergate: A scandal where President Nixon orchestrated the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Hold to account: To require a person to respond to a previous action or accept responsibility for that action.

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