This story originally appeared in Censorship News 126
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump made headlines for his scathing attacks on the press. They were not limited to labeling the media as dishonest, referring to unfavorable coverage as “fake news,” and threatening to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations. Mr. Trump’s media hostility went well beyond anything seen in recent history. From banning reporters from The Washington Post and Politico from his rallies to ejecting photographers filming Black Lives Matter protestors, Mr. Trump seemed intent on trying to intimidate and control the press.
Not much has changed since Donald Trump took office. If anything, his contempt for the fourth estate, displayed in attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the press and reporters’ ability to do their jobs, has only become more apparent. In February, Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred several prominent news outlets, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and BBC, from attending an off-camera “gaggle” in his office, while “friendlier”outlets like the Washington Times and Breitbart News were invited to attend. The president’s top strategist, Steve Bannon, accused the media of acting like the “opposition party.” Mr. Trump went a step further, declaring the press to be “the enemy of the American people!”
In a forceful rebuke, NCAC and the American Society of News Editors mobilized nearly 100 free speech and press organizations to “condemn in the strongest possible terms all efforts by elected and appointed officials to penalize, delegitimize, or intimidate members of the press.” As the joint statement noted, the main function of a free press as enshrined in the Constitution is “to monitor and report on the actions of public officials so that the public can hold them accountable.”
Thomas Jefferson stated that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Democracies survive only when the people have access to information and the ability to hold their elected officials accountable. This can’t happen when “unfriendly” reporters are banned from briefings or bullied from the presidential pulpit. It’s classic gaslighting – controlling the message through intimidation and misinformation (i.e. lies). Tensions between presidents and the press are familiar – Nixon famously chafed at press criticism and Obama openly lambasted Fox News – but President Trump has taken the conflict to a new level.
If anything, the country needs more reminders, not fewer, about the importance of press freedom. In Virginia, NCAC criticized school officials for engaging in “prior review” and censoring student newspaper articles on issues of importance to students, like abstinence-only sex education and chronic absenteeism. NCAC recently co-sponsored a report with the American Association of University Professors, College Media Association, and Student Press Law Center, Threats to the Independence of Student Media, documenting efforts to undermine student press on college campuses. In these and other similar situations, we see the damage done when public officials use their power to control speech and access to information. A free and independent press is necessary for an informed public and is the best bulwark against abuse of official power.
As Justice Brandeis wrote, the framers believed that “public discussion is a political duty,” and that the right to free speech would prevent “the occassional tyrannies of governing majorities.” The Washington Post observes this with its new, somewhat angst-filled slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Whether in the highest levels of government or in local school boards, the impulse to silence the press comes from the same impulse to limit other freedoms by controlling what people know and think. NCAC has its work cut out for it.
Free Speech Now: NCAC is monitoring developments in Washington and around the country to identify new threats to First Amendment rights. Visit pair.ncac.org/free-speech-now and find out how you can get involved with our regularly updated