Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
The Importance of a Free Press
A free and vigorous press is essential to good government and the functioning of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." George Mason wrote in Virginia's 1776 Declaration of Rights that, “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments." And in an April 1961 speech John F. Kennedy said
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive. . . . that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution . . .to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
And to see that Kennedy really meant it, just watch the following clip that aired after Kennedy had received intense criticism for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy could have cried about the treatment he was receiving at the hands of a hostile press. But he took the opposite approach. When asked whether he objected to the negative press, Kennedy responded:
. . . it is never pleasant to be reading things frequently that are not agreeable news. But I would say that it's an invaluable arm of the presidency, as a check really on what's going on in an administration. The more things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information . . . there isn't any doubt that we couldn't do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.
A few Examples of the Free Press in Action
Let's take a look at a few examples of how the free press has kept the American people informed of important stories in recent years.
- Thanks to the free press, we now know that our President is a charity cheapskate. Numerous articles have been written by a number of reporters documenting just how little Donald Trump has given to charity. David A. Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for publishing the Trump Hollywood Access "grab-them-by-the-pussy" tape and for a series of articles documenting the scam behind the Trump Foundation. The Foundation was shut down and Donald Trump was forced to pay $2 million in fines to 8 charities because of the Trump Foundation's misuse of funds.
- David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner of The New York Times won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for their exhaustive analysis of Trump's history of tax evasion and fraud. Last month Craig and Buettner, along with Mike McIntire broke another huge story when they got a hold of nearly two decades of Trump's tax returns. We now know Trump paid $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017 and NO Taxes in 10 of the previous 15 years. We now know that his taxes are being audited due to a questionable refund, and if Trump loses he may have to pay the IRS back up to $100 million when interest is included. We also know that he has $421 million in PERSONAL loans due over the next four years. Being this much in debt could make Trump a national security risk. He could be tempted to sell top secret information to hostile countries in order to get the money to settle his debt. And we now know that In 2018, Trump announced in a PUBLIC financial disclosure that he had made at least $434.9 million. Yet he reported a $47.4 million LOSS to the IRS. This suggests Trump committed tax fraud.
- New York City has a program set up to provide funds for fire fighters and first responders who developed long-term health problems as a result of their response to the 9/11 disaster. This program had been receiving payments from the federal government for years, but in 2016 something happened--the federal government started short-changing the fund. According to a September 10, 2020 New York Daily News article, the program's director, Dr. David Prezant, claimed the program did not receive $4 million that it should have received between 2016 and 2020. Prezant further stated that he had been unable get answers from the Treasury Department as to the whereabouts of the money even after years of trying. Republican Congressman Pete King got involved during the summer and got a partial answer as to where the missing money went--there was a bureaucratic snafu in which money that one or more New York City departments owed to the federal government was wrongfully deducted from the amount sent to the fire fighter's fund. Though King was able to get a partial answer as to what had happened, he was, unable to get the federal government to give the fire fighters health fund the money that they were owed. However, the Daily News published a follow-up story one day later; the Trump Administration acknowledged that it had short-changed the fund and sent the fund $2 million. It might have been just a coincidence, but it is hard to believe the fund would have received any money this quickly had the Daily News not inspired public outrage by shining a light on this problem.
- President Trump has a long history of overstating how healthy he is. Do you remember the hilarious letter that Dr. Harold Bornstein supposedly wrote in 2015 touting Donald Trump's amazing health? "Dr. Bornstein" ended his letter stating, "If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." The letter was so ridiculous that few believed it could have been written by a real doctor. And they were right. Dr. Bornstein later stepped forward to say that he didn't write the letter; Trump had dictated it to him. This background should cause us to look at the current situation in a new light. We only learned that Hope Hicks tested positive for the Corona virus because someone leaked that information to Bloomberg News. We also know that the White House had wanted to keep that information secret. All of this raises the question. When, if ever, would we have found out about Trump's Corona infection and the super-spreader event at the Rose Garden if we did not have leaks and a free press to publish them?
These are just four of many examples I could give to illustrate the necessity of a free press.
Trump's Tactics to Undermine Confidence In The Mainstream Media
Autocrats and dictators hate a free press. The last thing they want is a public informed by a free press scrutinizing their every move. So taking control of the press is a high priority for them to gain and maintain power. But when they can't control the press they do everything they can to get the public to distrust the press and disbelieve every critical story printed about them. Then they try to intimidate the press. Donald Trump has used a variety of intertwined and complementary tactics in attacking the credibility of the mainstream media. I call this combination the Big Lie/Firehose of Lies/Fake News demonization of the press.
Before discussing this dangerous combination of attacks, let me acknowledge two things. First, the press does make mistakes. Sometimes they get the story wrong. But the mainstream media strives to get it right. They usually get it right. They want to get it right because if they are wrong too often, they lose credibility. But it is only human to make mistakes, especially when there are deadlines and the urgent need to get the story out fast. And Donald Trump and his supporters will seize on even the smallest mistake and blow that mistake's significance out of proportion. And they will repeat over and over again that a wrongful claim proves that you can't trust the media--or at least any media that is critical of them.
And secondly, reporters often rely on anonymous sources. The source is not anonymous to them. They can vet their sources for credibility since they know who they are dealing with. But the sources are anonymous to us and we just have to rely on their vetting process. That weakens the story's credibility to a certain extent. Certainly, reporters would prefer it if their sources went on record and attached their names to their claims. But that often doesn't happen because sources know the minute they are identified they are likely to lose their jobs, face crushing legal fees to defend themselves against questionable lawsuits, or be targeted for harassment or violence. There is no getting around the fact that many of those who know the dirt will insist on remaining anonymous, so if a reporter wants to get the story, she will have to use anonymous sources. That is why most credible news outlets require at least two anonymous sources backing specific claims or a pattern of claims before publishing a story. But just because a source is anonymous, it doesn't mean it is unreliable. The Watergate scandal would not have been exposed without the assistance of Deep Throat.
Donald Trump and his supporters jump on the use of anonymous sources to discredit stories that they don't like.
“Anonymous Sources are really starting to BURN the media.” @FoxNews The fact is that many anonymous sources don’t even exist. They are fiction made up by the Fake News reporters. Look at the lie that Fake CNN is now in. They got caught red handed! Enemy of the People!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018
Having given those two disclaimers, let's look at how Donald Trump tries to discredit and intimidate the press. Adolph Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, defined the Big Lie when he said,
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
And it seems like Goebbels was on to something. Emily Dreyfuss writes in Wired
. . . the facts don't actually matter: People repeat them so often that you believe them. Welcome to the “illusory truth effect,” a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth. . . .
"Repetition makes things seem more plausible," says Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose research team first noticed the effect in the 1970s.. . .
Repetition is what makes fake news work, too, as researchers at Central Washington University pointed out in a study way back in 2012 before the term was everywhere. It's also a staple of political propaganda. It's why flacks feed politicians and CEOs sound bites that they can say over and over again. Not to go all Godwin's Law on you, but even Adolf Hitler knew about the technique. "Slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea," he wrote in Mein Kampf.
Susana Martinez-Conde writes in Scientific American about a recent study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that showed that "contrary to accepted knowledge, belief in all statements, be they plausible or implausible, increases with repetition." In other words, even unbelievable statements can become at least somewhat believable if you repeat them often enough. Martinez-Conde concludes her article by noting:
The implications for daily life, where consumers of news and products are often repeatedly exposed to both plausible and implausible falsehoods, is that even patent lies may slowly become more credible, provided enough repetition. Considering this vulnerability, it becomes critically important to not repeat falsehoods, even while we attempt to debunk them—lest we legitimize lies by reiteration itself.
I am going to violate Martinz-Conde's advice by briefly providing two examples of Trump's big lies. There are other big lies worth covering, but covering more lies would make an already long article excruciatingly long. Trump claims that he will ensure that insurance companies will continue to cover American's with pre-existing conditions. In reality, his Administration has asked the Supreme Court to declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, thus threatening to destroy protections against pre-existing conditions. He claims he has a great new health care plan to protect us if he kills the ACA, yet he has not shown us any plan.
Perhaps Trump's biggest lie tis his claim that he never did anything wrong. He claims that the Senate proved he did nothing wrong and proved that his impeachment was a vicious hoax perpetrated by evil Democrats when it failed to convict him. Actually, as I discussed here, the House presented a strong case that Trump withheld aide from Ukraine in an illegal attempt to blackmail Ukraine into coughing up dirt on the Bidens. The evidence would have been strong enough to get any grand jury to indict a regular citizen facing similar charges. And a grand jury is essentially what impeachment in the House is analogous to. It is an inquiry to determine if there is enough evidence to bring the case to trial. And the Senate is supposed to act like a trial court and decide whether there is enough evidence to convict. But anyone watching the impeachment and the "trial" could see that this was unlike any normal trial for two reasons. First, many documents and witnesses were not available because the Trump Administration engaged in an all-out battle to defy subpoenas. And second, the Republican controlled Senate refused to call any witnesses. John Bolton refused to testify before the House, but said he would testify before the Senate if they subpoenaed him. And Lev Parnas practically begged to testify before the Senate, but the Republicans weren't having it. In fact, the Senate Republicans refused to allow any witness testimony. What sort of judge refuses to allow any witness testimony? Every Senator in an impeachment trial should be acting as a juror who carefully listens to and weighs the evidence. But it was clear to anyone who watched the trial that the Republicans were acting like Trump's defense attorneys and not like jurors. The "trial" was held in a reverse-kangaroo court where the jurors were hell-bent on making sure not to convict the President. The Republican "jurors" were jurors who kept out witnesses who would make it harder for them to vote for Trump's acquital. Any claim that the Senate's failure to convict proved Trump's innocence is a lie.
Complementing the Big Lie is Trump's firehose of lies. The Washington Post documented that as of July 13, 2020 Donald Trump has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims. The Washington Post had a Pinocchio-based system for rating Trump's false or misleading claims that ranged from one-Pinocchio claims that shaded the facts but were mostly true to four-Pinocchio claims that were outright whoppers. But four categories for Trump's misleading claims were not enough. The Washington Post invented a fifth category called the Bottomless Pinocchio for claims that have earned three or four-Pinocchios that Trump has repeated 20 times or more. Trump lies so frequently that it is impossible for the average person to spot them all. CNN fact checker Daniel Dale fact-checked Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention and found at least 20 false statements. Watching him document these statement in rapid fire succession is a thing of beauty.
Demonizing the Media
Donald Trump is constantly pounding away at the mainstream news media by calling it "Fake News". He has invoked that phrase many times in his rallies and he has tweeted it out over 60 times. He has also called the mainstream media "the enemy of the people" in roughly 30 tweets. Here are a few examples.
FAKE NEWS IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2020
....The Fake News Media in our Country is the real Opposition Party. It is truly the Enemy of the People! We must bring honesty back to journalism and reporting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2019
Fortunately, Trump clarified for us that he wasn't talking about all the news media--just the "Fake News" media. Whew... I'm glad he's not making a very broad attack against the mainstream media.
CNN and others in the Fake News Business keep purposely and inaccurately reporting that I said the “Media is the Enemy of the People.” Wrong! I said that the “Fake News (Media) is the Enemy of the People,” a very big difference. When you give out false information - not good!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2018
They asked my daughter Ivanka whether or not the media is the enemy of the people. She correctly said no. It is the FAKE NEWS, which is a large percentage of the media, that is the enemy of the people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2018
But wait! In the next two tweets Trump spelled out what he considers to be the fake news media-- NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and "MSDNC", which I assume is his way of accusing MSNBC of being in the DNC's pocket. In other words, Trump has called most of the mainstream media "fake news".
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2020
As Veronika Bondarenko notes in Business Insider, the term "Enemy of the People" or a very close variation of that term was used by the French government to demonize those who opposed it during the Reign of Terror, by the Nazis to demonize the Jews in Germany, and by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin to demonize anyone who disagreed with their ideology. If you were designated an "enemy of the people" there was a very good chance that you would be sent to a labor camp or killed.
In addition, the term "Lügenpresse" (lying press) is sometimes thrown about by some of Trump's extreme right wing supporters. This term was also used by the Nazis during World War II and by the East German government to demonize the media. As Rick Noack of the Washington Post writes
Until today, the word has an anti-Semitic connotation, and it implies hatred not only against journalists but against everyone who opposes the “will of the people.” That abstract concept emerged during World War II when Hitler sought to propagate the idea that Germans were a "master race" superior to all others, especially Jews and Slavic people. . . .
The verbal attacks against journalists soon turned into physical violence in Germany. At times, media members were unable to cover the Pegida-organized protest marches without private security personnel. Some reporters who risked going in without bodyguards were beaten up. It is without doubt that the word “Lügenpresse” has an extremely ugly meaning in modern-day Germany.
Trump's frequent use of the term "Fake news" is not by accident. It is part of a calculated strategy to gin up hatred of the media so that people--especially those in his base--will disbelieve stories about his corruption and malfeasance. And that is the best case interpretation for his attacks. He might also be trying to create such a hostile climate for reporters that they will be afraid to do their jobs and will censor themselves rather than risk being physically attacked by the more extremist members of his angry base. The following two tweets show that he has no qualms about ramping up the hostility and intimidation.
There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame...
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018
And Trump's tactics have worked. I can remember back to the days of the Johnson presidency, and I have never seen such hostility towards the press as I am seeing now. Watch the video in the next tweet that Trump retweeted. He is encouraging the hatred. He enjoys the harassment. Watch the behavior of those he calls "Great people." Just watch. (Keven Vesey is the reporter being harassed. He works for a Long Island News 12--a New York Emmy Award winning local news service.)
People can’t get enough of this. Great people! https://t.co/b4HM0C298h
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2020
Ali Velshi, an MSNBC reporter was covering protests in Minneapolis on May 30. Police started shooting tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets into the crowd, apparently unprovoked. Velshi got hit with a rubber bullet in the leg as you will see at the very end of this next video.
Trump evidently thinks a reporter getting hit by a rubber bullet is hilarious. Fox News reported that he mocked Velshi being shot at two different rallies.
President Trump continues to mock MSNBC’s Ali Velshi for getting hit with a rubber bullet while covering Minneapolis protests, repeating the story on Tuesday at a Pennsylvania rally after initially calling it a “beautiful sight” last week during a campaign event.
“That idiot reporter from CNN got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas, right, and he went down,” Trump said on Tuesday of the reporter who actually works for MSNBC.
How Will Trump Treat The Media In A Second Term?
There is no evidence that Donald Trump will have any more respect for the media in a second term then he did during the first term. In fact, there are hints that he MIGHT try to crack down more harshly if his power is left unchecked. There are three incidents that suggest that he would have no problem if his followers started to kill reporters. I am not claiming that he himself would order an assassination of reporters, but the following three incidents are not encouraging signs.
Watch this video of Bill O'Reilly interviewing Trump in 2017. He asked Trump if he respected Putin and Trump answered that he did. Then the two had this very revealing exchange.
O'Reilly: But he’s a killer though. Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?
Thus, intentionally or not, Trump gave Putin the green light to kill his opponents while he simultaneously bad mouthed the United States. (Can anyone imagine Ronald Reagan doing anything like that?) There have been several Russian investigative journalists and Putin opponents (including Alexei Navalny) who have been mysteriously poisoned or have had mysterious fatal accidents, suggesting that Putin heard Trump's message loud and clear.
If only Putin was the only foreign tyrant that Trump has given a pass to when it came to murdering critics. Remember how the Saudis murdered and hacked up the body of Jamal Khashoggi? Bob Woodward does. When he asked Trump about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump bragged, "I saved his ass." "I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop." To be fair, Trump also told Woodward that he didn't believe MBS ordered the execution despite the fact that the CIA has concluded that he did. He did not explain, as far as I know, why MBS's ass needed saving if he never ordered the hit.
Is Trump envious of his counterparts overseas being able to literally get away with murder? I don't know. What I do know is that Trump famously joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. But it wasn’t such a laughing matter when his attorney, William Consovoy, tried to prevent the Manhattan District Attorney from getting Trump’s tax returns by arguing in court that Trump couldn't be arrested or even investigated if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue as long as he remained President. Trump's attorney argued that unless Congress impeached and convicted him, Trump could get away with murder for years. And given the sycophantic nature of the Republicans currently in the Senate, it is doubtful they would impeach him even if the murder was caught on video and there were a hundred witnesses.
None of this PROVES that Trump would kill his opponents if he could. But it is hard to avoid the unsettling thought that Trump wants to be king.
Update 4/20/22: Alex Pareene wrote an important article explaining that it isn't just Trump that wants to destroy the media--It is a powerful assortment of people that want to undermine it so they can crush those who are different while robbing you blind. Now, that is my characterization of his article--not his. In any case, the extreme right wing that supports the destruction of the media is not operating in good faith. Read his article.
This is the third article of a five-part series documenting Trump's attacks on our democracy. Here are all the articles in the series.
- Trump has politicized the Justice Department to help his friends and attack his enemies.
- Trump has attacked our courts and judicial system.
- Trump has attacked the free press and made it more dangerous for reporters to cover him.
- Trump is a stochiastic terrorist who has endangered the life of Michigan's Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and others.
- Trump has refused to commit himself to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election
Update: 4/29/22: I highly recommend watching Rachel Maddow's segment on the right-wing attacks on our press.