Trump administration threatens press freedom, CPJ report finds

Apr 24, 2020 in Digital and Physical Safety
White house

When Fox News  reporter Kristin Fisher asked U.S. President Donald Trump about testing following a report critical of his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump defended his actions, bashing her instead: "You should say 'congratulations, great job,' instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.”

In the same press conference on April 6, the president mocked ABC reporter Jon Karl. “There’s a typical fake news deal,” said Trump. “You’re a third-rate reporter, and what you just said is a disgrace.”

In the midst of these attacks, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report, “The Trump Administration and the Media,” which warns of a concerted effort to discredit the media and undermine press freedom in the U.S.

Targeting media owners, journalists and news sources is part of a well-defined strategy, wrote author Leonard Downie Jr. So are President Donald Trump's references to the media as “fake news,” “the enemy of the people” and “human scum.”

Downie is the former executive editor of The Washington Post and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication at Arizona State University. He interviewed dozens of journalists, media watchdogs, journalism educators, media legal experts and administration officials to produce the report. 

Now, in the face of a pandemic, factual information is more important than ever. The health of communities, and their ability to stop the spread of the disease, depend on access to information. 

“The president’s attacks on the media have had an impact. They have undermined public trust in journalism as an institution, a dangerous place to find ourselves in the midst of a public health emergency,” said CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon in a press release for the report. “And they have empowered autocrats around the world who are cracking down on press freedom with unbridled ferocity at a time when truthful information is more than ever a precious commodity.”

In a November 2016 meeting, CBS News correspondent Leslie Stahl asked President-elect Trump why he continued to berate the press. Trump responded, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that, when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Here are some highlights from the report.

[Read more: Key themes and formats of the COVID-19 disinfodemic]

Trump’s attacks on press credibility

“The thing that jumped out at me was how calculated it was. He plans it out,” noted Stahl.

The report found that Trump’s attacks are both intentional and hard to miss. Repetition has become one of his most potent weapons. Trump attacked the media in nearly 1,900 tweets between 2015, when he announced his candidacy, and the end of 2019, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. More than 600 of those tweets were aimed at The New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, Washington Post and Fox News.

These constant attacks are not without consequence. They have put journalists in danger. “Trump makes a very calculated decision about who he is going to pick on,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in an interview for the report. “He’s encouraging the public — actually calling on them — to harm journalists. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

“In all my years of reporting, I never once for a moment looked over my shoulder,” said former CNN anchor Frank Sesno in the report. “Trump has mobilized masses to sneer and taunt and do worse to people who are doing their jobs. He frankly acts like a thug, prodding his followers.” 

The impact of these actions spreads far beyond U.S. borders. By vilifying the press in his own country, Trump has given the green light to governments around the world to follow suit. 

“In the past few years, more than 50 prime ministers, presidents and other government leaders across five continents have used the term ‘fake news’ to justify varying levels of anti-press activity,” said The New York Times publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, in a 2019 speech quoted in the report. 

[Read more: Tips to support journalists that experience online attacks]

Trump, Twitter and the truth

Twitter has become a hallmark of Trump’s presidency, creating a conundrum for journalists who no longer only receive their information on the president through official channels. “The power of the president’s tweets is unprecedented,” said former White House communications director under President Trump, Michael Dubke. “The press does not know how to handle them. They are reported as ‘breaking news.’ They are much more effective than a press release.”  

Twitter has enabled Trump’s strategy to discredit the media, wrote Columbia Journalism Review digital reporter Matthew Ingram in 2017. “It allows him to state untruths with impunity knowing that his tweets will be widely redistributed by his followers and the media, and to dodge follow-up questions or criticism.”

According to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Trump has made 16,200 false or misleading claims on Twitter. Other fact-checking sites found similar results. ProPublica founder Paul Steiger said this creates “a readiness of people to disbelieve factual reporting.”

Trump’s years-long campaign to discredit the press, and his readiness to report inaccurate information jeopardizes the country’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic today. His daily briefings and statements on the virus often contain false or misleading information. 

Just this week after the report was published, he speculated on the effectiveness of ultraviolet rays and injecting disinfectants to treat COVID-19; this was  met with harsh criticism from doctors, manufacturers and more. The briefings necessitate fact-checking reports and corrections. MSNBC even cut away from the president to fact-check his statements in real time.

News media responses 

Central to this report is a crucial question: how should the media deal with Trump’s campaign to destroy their credibility with the American public? 

Media law professor Jonathan Peters from the University of Georgia would like to see the press stand up for itself, which could mean suspending normal relations with the White House, as he puts it. He offers the following advice:

  • Don’t put officials or surrogates who are known to make false statements on the air or use them as sources.
  • If Trump — or his spokespeople — refuse to answer a question at a press briefing, the next journalist called on should come back with the same question.
  • If journalists are excluded from White House briefings or other events due to their reporting, other media professionals should not attend.

New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen believes news media should completely change the way they approach coverage of the president. He advocates for ending automatic live coverage of Trump’s speeches, rallies and press conferences, participating in his briefings and doing interviews during which administration officials cannot be named.

The report concludes with seven recommendations CPJ offers to the Trump administration. Chief among them is a request for Trump to refrain from “delegitimizing or discrediting the media or journalists performing their vital function — not least during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Refrain from vilifying individual journalists and media outlets, including on Twitter.”

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Srikanta H. U.