Very Dangerous Times: The Media Is Under Attack by an Authoritarian White House

The Right Wing

If there were ever a doubt that a traitor now occupies the Oval Office, Tuesday’s assault on the exercise of a free press, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, should dispel it.

This particular attack was prompted by a screw-up at CNN, a favorite punching-bag for President Donald J. Trump, but was quickly extended to the whole of the political press. It’s a timeworn strategy of authoritarian regimes. As Jill Lepore recounted in the June 5 issue of the New Yorker, Edmund Taylor, writing in 1940 of Nazi strategy in France, reported on “the propaganda campaign waged by Nazi agents to divide the French people, by leaving them uncertain about what to believe, or whether to believe anything at all.”

CNN’s June 24 retraction of a story about Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund billionaire and member of the Trump transition team whom the president recently appointed to a senior role at the Export-Import Bank, reportedly happened after Scaramucci, now a member of the government, threatened CNN with a $100 million lawsuit. At issue was CNN’s report—since removed from its website—that the Treasury Department and the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into a meeting Scaramucci had taken, while a member of the Trump transition team, with the head of Russian investment fund that is currently chafing against U.S. sanctions. CNN reporter Thomas Frank relied on a single anonymous source for the claim of the senators’ inquiry, and he and his editor, according to CNN sources cited in a New York Times report, failed to subject the story to the news outlet’s protocol for vetting prior to publication.

In making the retraction, CNN also issued an apology. It did not, however, issue a correction. In other words, the story may not have risen to the news organization’s standards for sourcing, but it wasn’t necessarily untrue. Nonetheless, Frank resigned, as did his editor, Eric Lichtblau, and investigative unit chief Lex Haris.

Briefings from the White House podium in the press room are no longer a daily affair, and the White House recently forbade reporters to shoot video footage, take photos, or to sometimes even capture audio from the most recent briefings conducted by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. (Note: This is not normal.) But Tuesday was different. Reporters should have known something was up when they were invited to come equipped with the usual tools of their trade: The White House wanted to be on the record, in living color, for this.

Occupying the podium was Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who upheld the president’s tweets decrying CNN as the “Fake News Network,” and virtually all the major news outlets as purveyors of the same. “I think that we have gone to a place where, if the media can't be trusted to report the news, then that's a dangerous place for America,” she said.

She then advised reporters to view a video by proven prevaricator James O’Keefe, in which a journalist for CNN’s medical unit complains that CNN hypes the Trump-Russia stories for the ratings, which might sound to some like sour grapes.

“Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know,” Sanders said of the O’Keefe video, “but I would encourage everybody in this room, and frankly, everybody across the country to take a look at it.”

Now, one could argue that Trump and his minions aren’t exactly stopping the media from publishing and broadcasting what they care to; they’re simply issuing lies about the nature of what the news media do, and upholding the work of O’Keefe, a man who once apparently tried to illegally access the phone lines of a U.S. senator by having a member of his team pose as a telephone repairman. (He was sentenced to three years’ probation for “entering real property belonging to the United States under false pretenses.”) But when one issues such lies from the presidential podium and from the president’s Twitter account, that slaps the imprimatur of the United States Government on those lies. And when the tax revenues collected from the American people are used to lie to the American people—for the purpose of obscuring behavior by administration figures that is, at best, of questionable ethics, and at worst, egregiously corrupt—the exercise of a free press can be fairly said to be impaired.

Trump’s most recent assault on the press may be seen as just another episode in a long saga, going back to the campaign. At Trump rallies, the press were penned in, sometimes in the center of an arena, and the candidate would invite the crowd to turn toward them and jeer. Cries of “Lügenpresse!”—German for “lying press”—were sometimes heard. Only a anesthetized journalist would remain unnerved while trapped in a cage with a crowd roaring insults at her. And that’s partly the point. Bully the media—members of a profession that requires risk-taking—into self-doubt. The other part is to set the narrative of disbelief, so that when the real stuff hits the fan, the partisans are primed to see the journalists who expose bad actions by their man as “enemies of the people,” as the president has called the media.

And make no mistake, the Republican Congress is complicit in these attacks, which amount to an assault on democracy.

On June 22, Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont, addressed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the signs of authoritarianism he saw creeping into American politics. He recounted a chilling January 25 quote from Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who suggested that the American people should get their news straight from the president—not the media. “In other words, according to a member of the United States Congress, there is one person in this country who can tell us the truth,” Sanders said. It’s not gonna be in your newspapers; it’s not gonna be on TV; it’s not gonna be in books. There’s one person who can tell you the truth. And that is President Trump. Now, what does that tell us about the future of American democracy?”

There’s a reason, he concluded, that “our Founders enshrined the press as the one profession specifically protected in the Bill of Rights. A well-informed citizenry is necessary for democracy to function correctly.”

And if Trump has anything to say about it, it won’t.

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