Friday, February 17, 2017

Journalism -- Trump's "Enemy of the People"


President Trump recently accused a wide range of media – The New York Times, ABC News, CBS News, CNN – of being the enemies of the American people. This is a part of his long-running battle against journalists and media he calls “fake news” who dare question his decisions and who seek accurate information about his platforms and his often ambiguous actions.

Those who follow Trump understand he often feels maligned by the media, quick to lash out against investigative reports. In fact, February 2016 on Fox News Channel, he threatened if elected to weaken First Amendment protections for reporters and make it easier for him to sue them.

Then, Trump said …

“I love free press. I think it’s great,” quickly adding, “We ought to open up the libel laws, and I’m going to do that.”

Furthermore, Trump later told a rally in Fort Worth that year that changes he envisioned would mean that “when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

Trump has threatened to sue the Washington Post after the newspaper wrote an article about the bankruptcy of his Atlantic City casino. On Twitter, Trump has routinely criticized reporters who cover him and their news organizations, including The Associated Press.

“The press has to be fair,” he said in the broadcast interview.

(Associated Press. “Trump wants to weaken libel laws amid feuds with reporters.” Fox News. February 27, 2016.)

Libel law in the United States makes it difficult for public figures to sue reporters or other people who criticize them. To win such a case, the plaintiff must demonstrate that factually incorrect statements were made with actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth.

Yet the seemingly always retaliatory President Trump said he would like to lower that standard. “We’re going to have people sue you like you never got sued before,” he said.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said because the Supreme Court has repeatedly endorsed the existing legal standard, Trump could not change libel laws as they affect public figures by executive order or even with an act of Congress.

However …

Cristian Farias of The Huffington Post reminds us ...

“That’s not to say you can never sue the press. It’s just that the First Amendment, thanks to the Supreme Court’s reading of it in the landmark 1964 case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, has made it extremely difficult for public officials to do so. That’s been the law of the land for over 50 years.

“As a unanimous Supreme Court put it in the 1964 case, it should be hard for American public figures to sue the press, because that reflects 'a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.'”

(Cristian Farias. “Donald Trump Wants To Sue The First Amendment. He’ll Lose.” The Huffington Post. February 26, 2016.)

To a leader who undoubtedly prefers state-run media, President Trump threatens the free press. He believes his Twitter posts can maintain an effective assault on the so-called “fake news” and turn public opinion away from factual reporting. His advisers like Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, serve to ratchet up the pressure, describing the media as “the opposition party” and offering up “alternative facts” when necessary.

Make no mistake, President Trump attempts to silence his critics no matter the validity of their claims. His lack of respect for the First Amendment is appalling. He owes his allegiance to himself and has professed his own uncanny ability to know what is best for America – no matter advice to the contrary. Who knows how much the institutions of government could restrain him if he seeks to exceed his constitutional obligations?

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, said Trump’s comments betrayed a troubling disregard for free expression.

“There are very few serious constitutional thinkers who believe public figures should be able to use libel as indiscriminately as Trump seems to think they should,” Professor Somin said. “He poses a serious threat to the press and the First Amendment.”

(Adam Liptak. “Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law, Scholars Say.” The New York Times. June 03, 2016.)

It is time for all Americans to recognize the present danger posed by President Trump. The role of the free press is vital to our democracy. The access to all news is crucial for citizens. Unless we have dogged, tenacious journalists who are free to challenge authority without fear of reprisal, we stand to lose access to the truth. President Trump has no right to deny total coverage of his actions. Despite his obvious views to the contrary, he is a servant of all of the people, not just a baron of his Electoral College majority.

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