Trump is trying to destroy the one institution that can most effectively constrain his abuses of power.
Trump has never been a friend of the First Amendment. From the earliest days of his presidential campaign through the first year of his presidency and into the second, Trump has waged an all-out war on the free press, seeking to destroy the one institution that can most effectively constrain his abuses of power.
But this week, Trump’s assault on the free press reached an alarming new level. With battles raging on multiple fronts, Trump is intentionally undermining the First Amendment in an effort to stifle dissent, evade accountability, and ultimately make it easier for his administration to delegitimize any other institutions that get in his way.
Trump kicked off the week by rushing to defend his personal propaganda arm, Sinclair Broadcasting, after it faced backlash amid revelations that the company was forcing local anchors across the country to read from a script.
In doing so, Trump was keeping up his end of what can only be described as a blatant quid pro quo agreement.
While he was still a candidate, Sinclair struck a deal with the Trump campaign to give him more favorable coverage. And as president, he has paid the media empire back by praising its coverage, denigrating its competitors, and — with the help of his handpicked FCC chairman Ajit Pai — made it easier for Sinclair to expand its viewing audience to reach 72 percent of American households.
As others have noted, the true danger in Sinclair’s coverage is not its reach or its right-wing bias. Rather, the danger is that it conceals its bias by packaging it as local news while not revealing the source. Propaganda is dangerous — but propaganda disguised as news coming out of the mouths of trusted local news anchors is nothing short of Orwellian.
On Tuesday, Trump stood before an international audience at a press conference and told the leaders of three Baltic nations not to call on U.S. reporters, saying that American media outlets are “fake news.”
Trump popularized the term “fake news” as a candidate, and then turned it into a weapon to use against stories he doesn’t like. His use of the term has spread to other government officials, who have followed in his footsteps and now wield the term to get away with their own misdeeds by labeling critical reporting as “fake.”
As the Associated Press reported in March, “President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all levels of government, who are echoing his use of the term ‘fake news’ as a weapon against unflattering stories.”
“It’s become ubiquitous as a signal to a politician’s supporters to ignore legitimate reporting and hard questions, as a smear of the beleaguered and dwindling local press corps, and as a way for conservatives to push back against what they call biased stories,” AP reported, citing several instances in which lawmakers have used the term to dismiss questions and downplay evidence of wrongdoing.
Also this week, Bloomberg Law reported on a chilling plan by the Department of Homeland Security to compile a list of more than 290,000 journalists, bloggers, and “media influencers” for the purpose of tracking and monitoring them. According to the report, DHS is “seeking a contractor that can help it monitor traditional news sources as well as social media and identify ‘any and all’ coverage related to the agency or a particular event.”
Ultimately, DHS wants to set up a database of “influencers” that the government can use to browse based on “location, beat, and type of influence.” The database would include “present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.'”
Even if the intent of such a database is not nefarious, the potential for abuse is endless. And given that lawmakers have actually proposed legislation that would force journalists to register and receive a license from the government, it’s reasonable to ask whether this database could lay the foundation for the government to surveil American journalists — and ultimately, to curtail their work.
News of the DHS plan came amid reports that the State Department is considering a proposal that would require all visa applicants to the U.S. turn over their social media information for the previous five years.
All of this followed a weekend during which Trump publicly contemplated using the government to punish news outlets that don’t follow in the footsteps of Trump-friendly outlets like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. And the day after Trump made the suggestion, his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale called for CNN reporter Jim Acosta to be disciplined for asking Trump a question.
This is, quite literally, an attack on a fundamental pillar of our democracy.
But it’s more than that — it’s an assault on our Constitution by a leader who swore to uphold and protect it.
As Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, noted last year, “Freedom of the press, not only sort of a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution but very much something that the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the president.”