Since securing the Republican nomination Donald Trump has unsuccessfully tried to portray himself as more presidential but there is an alarming fact that people are not talking about. Trump’s relationship with the press is already ludicrous, with stories of him holding grudges for years against journalists because of articles they have written, but this was never really a problem when he was an erratic businessman. Now that he is running to become the most powerful person in the world his comments about press freedom should be alarming.
This morning Donald Trump announced that journalists from the Washington Post would have their press credentials revoked due to “incredibly inaccurate coverage”. I have no love for the Washington Post because they are a mouthpiece of the American power elite (to quote C. Wright Mills), but this should be alarming. The coverage from other news sources has been that this is classic Trump and therefore is treated with a tone of semi-mockery. However this is much more serious than they realise. This latest ban from Trump puts the Washington Post on a list of blacklisted publications that is slowly expanding and already includes the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. Again I have many problems with each of these news sources but these disagreements don’t culminate in a desire to have them censored.
The freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment and attempts by any politician, let alone someone wishing to be President, to undermine press freedom should be a red flag. Not only has Donald Trump claimed he wants to “open up the libel laws” in order to silence press criticism but he clearly feels a sense of grievance because of how the media has characterised him. To this criticism I would say: tough shit. I don’t believe, philosophically speaking, that anyone can be truly objective however I would argue that the press has been more than fair to Donald Trump considering the verbal faeces spewing out of his mouth.
To take one example Trump has notoriously claimed that all Muslims should be banned from entering America for a certain period of time because of terrorism. When journalist outright state that this is a discriminatory act motivated by bigotry Trump complains and claims he is being persecuted. This is clearly ridiculous, but it response is more sinister. If a news publication has published a verifiably false statement there are appropriate responses such as libel lawsuits or demands of corrections. The response from Trump has been to threaten everyone with lawsuits to stifle criticism and then threaten to violate the Bill of Rights.
The other dimension to this, as I have alluded to, is that this clearly shows that Trump doesn’t know how the American government works. The President cannot ban people from one specific religion from entering the country by executive order and would require Congressional support, and even if Congressional Republicans backed his plan any such law would clearly be deemed unconstitutional. Furthermore Trump’s plan to open up libel laws in order to quash criticism is authoritarian and against the constitution. Such a move is used by countries around the world to suppress political rights and democracy, yet because a candidate for President has openly made the comments this proposal is given an air of gravitas.
Unsurprisingly press freedom and free speech are issues that I care passionately about and this development in the United States is worrying. There is no justification for trying to silence press freedom in the real of political reporting. There is a nuanced conversation about privacy rights in regards to paparazzi and celebrities but that is a totally separate conversation. In politics the job of the press is to hold people to account and if politicians are musing out loud about stopping this scrutiny, the politician in question should be branded an authoritarian and ostracised from the discourse by the citizenry. Press censorship and threatening journalists with frivolous law suits are characteristics of authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey. If the United States takes this authoritarian route then it is up to people around the world, including in countries that are allies of the US, to call it out as oppressive and backward.