Donald Trump ran what has been widely acknowledged as the most mendacious, racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant presidential campaign in U.S. history. He also ruthlessly attacked the media, alternately whining about how he was portrayed and castigating the press for investigating his business dealings, statements, and personal behavior. And as if that were not enough, he also targeted individual journalists—like MSNBC’s Katy Tur, who found herself the focus of the wrath of angry mobs at Trump rallies.
Attacking the press was part of the plan all along; that much is obvious. Authoritarians attack institutions to channel anger and distract attention from the needs of real people. And now that he has been elected, Trump is trying to control the media. In a democracy, this cannot stand. In fact, a democracy cannot stand without the free press.
Trump has not held a press conference since July of this year. He has barred and continues to bar the White House press pool—the group of journalists that regularly covers the president and the White House and goes wherever the president goes—from doing its work. And he has constantly complained when the media tries to hold him accountable for decisions, such as whether and how he will separate himself and his business from the interests of the United States. Rather than any cogent response, he takes to Twitter in decidedly un-presidential form to castigate the press. At the same time, he and his children have engaged in the very definition of propaganda. For example, releasing curated photos taken by a Japanese diplomat instead of allowing the press to cover meetings with Japanese officials in which Ivanka Trump also participated, and refusing to hold press conferences but circulating scripted videos on YouTube, to which we are not linking here for the very reason that it is propaganda.
This is all the stuff of media manipulation and distraction.
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Press freedoms are under attack now, more than ever.
There is reason again to distract: To date, all indications are that he is actually using the office of the president before he even occupies it to engage in “self-dealing,” when a person in position of authority—a trustee, an attorney, a corporate officer, or other fiduciary—takes advantage of their own position to benefit themselves rather than the people or entities on whose behalf they are supposed to be acting. Just this morning, the Trump Foundation, which is ostensibly a nonprofit, admitted to self-dealing in using funds to enrich the Trump family, a direct violation of the rules under which nonprofits act. And in just the two weeks since the election, Trump and his children, whose vast business interests pose a multitude of conflicts of interest, have been using meetings with foreign leaders to pursue their own business goals. These are profound abrogations of the public trust and a critical area for press coverage.
Now, however, Trump wants a “cordial” relationship with the press. This week, for example, Trump met with executives and anchors from CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, during which he reportedly complained about their coverage of him to date, going so far as to criticize which photos they used. The meeting was off the record. Notably, the press pool was not allowed to participate.
This morning, Trump first used Twitter to send a message that he would cancel a meeting with the New York Times because he did not like their coverage of potential conflicts of interest, and then turned around and agreed to the meeting, a further signaling of his treatment of the press as a kind of yo-yo he can control on a whim.
Establishing a “cordial” relationship with Donald Trump is not the media’s job. Quite the opposite: The highest and primary obligation of journalism is to serve the public interest, and to offer reporting that is fair, accurate, and thorough. While it is clear that with the rise of click-bait journalism and corporate control of media outlets we have serious problems with freedom of the press in this country, it is nonetheless our job to act as watchdogs, not lapdogs of government officials and agencies and those in power.
A free press is the foundation of our democracy. A free press is also a threat to those who would use the government for their own benefit; who engage in self-dealing, graft or corruption; or who in other ways abuse their office and their power. A free press must ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
I can only surmise that a president who confers regularly with Vladimir Putin and who has hired Steve Bannon as a “senior counselor” would like to the control the press.
That can not be allowed to happen. We must do our job by resisting attempts by Trump and members of his administration to control, manipulate, coerce, or threaten the press or members of the media. We at Rewire take our obligations as part of the free press deeply seriously, and will continue to take to task any media outlet that fails to do so.