President Donald Trump doesn’t read or study history, so he’s probably unfamiliar with the Alien and Sedition Acts. He’d love them. They were the infamous series of discredited measures promulgated by President John Adams in 1798 and designed, in part, to silence unfriendly journalists.
Trump poses the greatest challenge to a free press at least since President Richard Nixon. Any story that doesn’t celebrate him he derides as “fake news.” He’s repeatedly called journalists the “enemy of the people,” putting 80 percent of the press in that category.
His administration proposed to boost postal rates after Trump attacked Amazon, which he targeted because he doesn’t like the Washington Post and its owner, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. He’s weaponized the Justice Department’s antitrust division in a way that appears to link news coverage to approval of media mergers. He’s threatened to change libel laws to make it harder to hold public officials accountable. It’s all meant to intimidate and delegitimize coverage of Trump’s mushrooming scandals.
He even suggested canceling the TV program “Saturday Night Live,” which loves to make fun of him. He has been indifferent to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabian agents linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The press should not allow itself to be bullied, or baited into behaving like Trump.
US press freedom has never been more important. Journalists around the world are being threatened, jailed and murdered. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 53 journalists this year were killed and 251 imprisoned, levels that rank among the highest on record.
The leader of the country that has most celebrated freedom of the press and enshrined in its Constitution is now giving aid and comfort to some of the bloodiest anti-press autocrats in the world.
They’ve even adopted his language. Philippine strong man Rodrigo Duterte accused a press critic of being “a fake news outlet.” Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has declared, “We are living in an era of fake news.” Poland’s anti-press president thanked Trump for helping the fight against “the power of fake news” and echoed his critique of “elites.” The Russian Foreign Ministry last year launched an entire “fake news section.” (Joseph Stalin famously called the press “enemy of the people,” a phrase also used by Mao Zedong and propagandists for Adolf Hitler.)
Domestically, the effect is polarizing and poisonous. I teach a course at the University of Pennsylvania, where a student spent a week each night alternating every hour between Fox News and MSNBC. The divergence amounted to much more than a difference in slant; there were separate worlds of news. This phenomenon plays to Trump’s contention that all reporting is politically motivated.
The establishment press, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, on balance has done a good job covering the Trump scandals. (My Bloomberg Opinion colleague, Timothy L. O’Brien, author of a 2005 biography of Trump, has been especially prescient.)
In October 2016, with the seeming certainty ahead of a Hillary Clinton victory in the November presidential election, the Times pulled its punches in the way it handled allegations of links between Trump and Russian officials trying to influence the presidential election. Over the past two years it has made up for it with aggressive reporting, with big scoops on the Trump-Russia connections.
The Post has been there step-for-step, starting with early articles about Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Flynn has since pleaded guilty of lying about contacts with a Russian official. Sessions was fired after Trump repeatedly complained about his refusal to rein in federal inquiries.
One huge void in the Washington press corps is the loss 10 years ago of Tim Russert, the great television journalist; he would have been a nightmare for this president.
Let’s hope that news organizations keep up the pressure. Trump is a master of exploiting the media’s short attention span and its bias for a sometimes spurious even-handedness, which make it easier for him to lie.
“A clear lie should be called a clear lie every time, and high up in every story,” said Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times.
She also worries about Trump’s ability to create diversions.
“The press too often gets caught up in the circus,” said Abramson, who has a book coming out in a month, “Merchants of Truth,” about the contemporary news business and what she calls Trump’s “unprecedented war” on the press. “As a result, great stories like the Times’s exhaustive revelations about Trump’s tax scams get only short attention.”
In the Trump administration, White House briefings are a sham, where officials lie and reporters preen. News organizations should send interns to these charades.
The importance of a vigorous press shouldn’t be subject to partisan debate. And indeed, principled conservatives have joined in criticizing Trump’s tactics.
“To employ even idle threats to stifle criticism is corrosive to our Democratic institutions,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, the departing Arizona Republican. Sen. Pat Leahy, the liberal Vermont Democrat, said that Americans who “cherish the First Amendment” should “be appalled -- the words of a president matter.”
To be sure, every president and most other politicians complain about press coverage, usually equating fairness with favorable treatment and unfairness with its opposite. Sometimes they’re right.
But Trump is different. There’s a big difference between ordinary political spin and his cynical lies. Most presidents respect the political and legal limits of acceptable efforts to combat unfriendly media. Trump disdains limits.
Cornered, he will escalate his attacks and try to retaliate. As with any bully, the effective response is to be cool and aggressive.
By Albert R. Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. -- Ed.