One of the signs of a healthy, well-functioning democracy is the existence of a free and often adversarial press. Unsurprisingly, as American democracy has withered under increasing attack, correspondingly, so has the press in this country. During the Trump administration, those attacks have become more direct and more focused.
Of course, the media had been under pressure even before Trump. Technological change, primarily the advent of the internet, played havoc with the print media’s business model. In 2013, newspaper advertising revenue had fallen to a little over one-third of what it had been at the turn of the century, a loss of $40 billion. At the same time, the traditional print business also began to be challenged by a new breed of purely digital news organizations as well as sites like Craigslist that sucked away classified ad revenue. Not only did those digital startups have less overhead than traditional print media but they were often merely aggregators who relied on the work of print reporters without paying for it.
Even more problematic was the fact that advertising on the digital platforms that traditional media built as an adjunct to their business never came close to making up for the lost print advertising. In fact, digital advertising costs not only plummeted but Facebook and Google also demanded a bigger slice of that smaller pie. Over the last 15 years, 20% of newspapers have ceased operations. The number of newspaper reporters have been halved since 2008. While legendary metropolitan newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have all folded, it is the closure of small local papers that has created enormous news deserts across the country. That is especially concerning because the lack of scrutiny enhances the already rich environment for corruption at the state and local level.
This distressing trend has been exacerbated by vulture capitalists who buy these struggling papers on the cheap, then strip their assets and fire their unionized employees, while starting up or shifting limited resources to a usually stripped-down non-unionized digital operation. By 2017, it was clear that a media crash was coming for both print and digital outlets. This year that crash hit with a vengeance as even successful digital platforms like Buzzfeed and Vice were forced into significant layoffs.
At the same time traditional media was coming under financial pressure, it was also losing credibility. Reporters not only acted as stenographers for the Bush administration lies in order to start a war in Iraq but editorial pages also became cheerleaders for that effort. In addition, the “both-sides” style of journalism that had worked so well for the prior few decades became increasingly unable to accurately portray the march toward far-right extremism of the Republican party. The proliferation of alternate sources of information available via the internet, both fact and fiction, only added to the mainstream media’s loss of credibility.
All of this came to a head with Trump’s candidacy in 2015-2016. The media managed to miss much of the life-long criminality of a pathologically lying, seven-time bankrupted, money laundering, philandering, serial sexual predator and con man and instead focused on the email server management protocols of a twenty-year public servant, all in the name of both-sidesing an election they thought would not be close. Meanwhile, Trump capitalized on the media’s lack of credibility by portraying them as the enemy of his campaign. His rhetoric resulted in reporters covering his campaign being threatened and harassed by Trump supporters, some of whom actually believed that Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington DC pizza place.
Trump’s attacks on the press have only gotten worse as his administration has progressed. His rhetoric has become more extreme, openly calling the media “the true Enemy of the People”. It was hardly surprising, then, when one of his supporters decided to include CNN in the list of people and organizations that he sent pipe bombs to. In addition, at a rally in 2019, a Trump supporter breached the media corral and attacked a BBC cameraman as he shouted expletives at the press. More distressingly, it also appears that the media still has not figured out how to properly deal with Trump’s incessant and compulsive lying.
As President, however, Trump could go beyond just verbally abusing the media and use the powers of the executive branch to attack a free press. And he has done exactly that. First, Trump tried and failed to get the DOJ to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner not only to spite CNN but also to reward his biggest media propagandist, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. He successfully blocked Amazon from getting a $10 billion Defense Department cloud-computing contract in order to spite Jeff Bezos because of his ownership of the “Amazon Washington Post”, with the DoD eventually awarding the contract to Microsoft.
Trump’s antipathy to the press has now permeated the government agencies he controls. According to the Intercept, CBP “was collaborating with Mexican law enforcement in a sweeping intelligence-gathering operation targeting journalists, activists and attorneys along the U.S.-Mexico divide”. That effort involved maintaining a list of journalists who needed to be detained and interrogated. Those interrogations sometimes involved the unconstitutional searches of reporters’ phones and requiring the journalists to reveal confidential information and sources including the identities of people they may have interacted with in Mexico.
DHS apparently ran a similar type of campaign against journalists covering the protests in Portland, creating intelligence reports on journalists who were reporting on DHS’s legally problematic actions in that city. Such intelligence reports are usually reserved for “suspected terrorists and violent actors”, not reporters. The fact that reporters were subjects of intelligence reports was a direct result of a reduction in oversight of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis ordered by senior political DHS leaders.
In fact, creating “dossiers” on journalists, a normally routine feature of autocratic regimes, has became a particular favorite tactic of the Trump administration. White House spokesman Judd Deere has stated that the administration was “building up a very large ‘dossier’ on the many false David Fahrenthold and others stories as they are a disgrace to journalism and the American people”, adding that “The Washington Post is blatantly interfering with the business relationships of the Trump Organization, and it must stop”. Fahrenthold and others have been trying to figure out how much money the Trump Organization has made from Trump’s Emoluments Clause violations and other corrupt acts. The fact that the White House is attacking reporters for investigating the Trump Organization shows just how deeply corrupted the Trump administration is.
At the same time DHS was creating intelligence dossiers on journalists in Portland, federal agents were also physically targeting journalists during the protests. According to a lawsuit filed against DHS and the US Marshals Service, the journalists reported that they were attacked “by federal agents with mace, tear gas, flash bangs and other weapons”. At least one reporter had to be transported to the hospital after being shot in the eye with a pepper ball that pierced his gas mask. The victim reported that agents also shot at the car that was used to transport him to the hospital. That lawsuit resulted in a temporary restraining order against federal agents targeting reporters in Portland. But, as has happened all too often during the Trump administration, that lawful court order was basically ignored as federal agents kept on attacking reporters during the Portland protests.
In Washington DC, Park Police attacked two Australian journalists as part of their broader attack on peaceful protestors in order to clear space for Trump’s photo op with an upside down bible. These attacks on the press have also filtered down to local police as well. In Detroit, a police officer intentionally fired rubber bullets at three reporters after they had specifically identified themselves as members of the press. In Louisville, an officer pelted a reporter and cameraman with a barrage of pepper bullets while they were on air. In Minneapolis, State Police arrested a CNN TV crew that was reporting on the protests there and offering to move wherever the officers wanted them to go. MSNBC’s Ali Velshi was also tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets reporting on those same Minneapolis protests. A CNN commentator was arrested by New York City police as he tried to take videos of the unrest there, even after he had identified himself as a member of the media. In LA, a TV reporter was also shot with rubber bullets covering the protests there. There are dozens of other similar reports from the protests this summer.
Meanwhile, Trump is trying to turn the US-funded broadcasters into a propaganda arm of the Trump campaign. In June, Trump installed a new head of the US Agency for Global Media which includes Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Typically for a Trump appointee, that new head is currently under criminal investigation for using non-profit funds for his own private company. He immediately purged the senior leadership at those various news outlets and the leadership of the Voice of America (VOA) resigned in protest. By law, the VOA “prohibits interference by any US government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference” and to “represent America, not any single segment of American society”.
Trump aims to change that, turning these broadcasters away from their traditional role as independent news organizations promoting American values and into propaganda arms for the current administration’s foreign policy. A former National Security Council official noted “The priority is to make coverage fall in line with the president’s worldview” which will “will stink up the place and that stench is going to spread to anything that carries the label of a US international media agency”. He worried the VOA would become “something much more similar to the North Korean Ministry of Information”, while Walter Shaub likened it to “the Breitbartization of U.S. government media”. Those worries seemed to be confirmed when the VOA tweeted “U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has weathered storms that have shaken the Trump White House, standing by the president through an impeachment trial and many Cabinet reshuffles”, promoting a VOA story entitled “Mike Pence: Backing Up a Demanding Boss”, immediately after Biden announced the selection of Kamila Harris as his Vice Presidential candidate. The VOA later claimed that the piece was “inadvertently released prematurely”.
Of course, Fox News, One America News, and Sinclair Broadcasting are already effectively propaganda arms for the Trump administration and the Republican party. Fox has become so synonymous with the Trump administration that it is often unclear whether Trump is driving Fox propaganda or Fox personalities are driving Trump policies.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, it appears that Trump is laying the groundwork to criminally charge reporters investigating his administration after the election. As emptywheel notes, there are at least two cases where the DOJ has charged individuals with a conspiracy involving reporters. In the first, a Defense Intelligence Employee has already pleaded guilty to leaking classified information about China to two NBC reporters. In the second, a Treasury official was also charged with leaking confidential Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) to Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold as part of his investigation into Manafort’s Russian connections.
In fact, the Treasury Department released a statement attempting to pre-censor release of that SARs information, writing, “The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is aware that various media outlets intend to publish a series of articles based on unlawfully disclosed Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), as well as other sensitive government documents, from several years ago…FinCEN has referred this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General”. Both cases involving reporters were charged as conspiracies, allowing the DOJ to charge the journalists in the future. As emptywheel summarizes, the new DOJ standard may be “that journalists asking someone with clearance for information get treated like spies”.
As a country, we have always enjoyed the benefits of a free press but perhaps we take it far too much for granted. It is remarkable to note that Freedom House estimates that only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a truly robust free press. However, declining press freedom is one of the clear warning signs of a declining democracy. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index showed the US declining to 48th place, falling behind such places as Botswana, Chile, and Romania. For the US press, the pressure is coming from all sides. The organizations they work for are under increasing financial pressure and the journalist themselves have been targeted by the President, his administration, his supporters, and law enforcement. Yes, the American media is still producing remarkable journalism. But, as the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization at the Columbia University School of Journalism, noted of the current environment, “There is now a culture of impunity for attacks on the press. It’s essentially the abandonment of press freedom as an American value”.