On Wednesday, Trump’s first press conference since July gave us a glimpse of what his presidency could be, and it should serve as a wake-up call for America.
His shameless public attacks on journalists are a tactic ripped from the playbook of authoritarian regimes around the world with the goal is to discredit the media and undermine journalists’ ability to play their crucial role in holding government accountable.
The news conference began with Trump press secretary-designate Sean Spicer deriding as “outrageous and highly irresponsible” Buzzfeed’s decision to publish an uncorroborated dossier alleging, among other things, Russian interference involving the president-elect and top campaign aides.
Spicer also called CNN “pathetic” and “sad” even after the network declined to publish the dossier but ran a more general story indicating that US intelligence agencies had conveyed to Trump and to President Barack Obama reports of the Russian government holding compromising information about Trump.
But it didn’t stop there. Once Trump took the podium, CNN reporter Jim Acosta made persistent attempts to ask a question, calling out that having been attacked by name, the network ought to have the right to pose a query.
Trump yelled at Acosta menacingly, saying “not you,” “your organization is terrible,” and “you are fake news.” He referred to Buzzfeed as a “failing pile of garbage.” Acosta reports that he was then threatened by Spicer that if he tried again to ask a question he would be thrown out of the press conference.
This is not the first time trump has attacked a journalist directly. On the campaign trail, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos was ejected from a Trump news conference. And then the candidate’s well-publicized feud with then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly.
But as Trump morphs from candidate to commander-in-chief, his attacks on the press take on a far more dangerous and far-reaching power. The specter of a president attacking journalists who ask questions or expose corruption is nothing new. It happens all over the world in authoritarian countries where leaders brook no dissent. Journalists who don’t toe the line are derided as incompetent, politically-motivated or seditious.
Rather than conclusively rebutting unwelcome reporting, these leaders undermine the source. Aimed to intimidate and silence, these tactics can be highly effective, training the press to comply with a set of implicit rules that, after a while, no longer need active enforcement.
This is the tactic used by leaders in the most tyrannical countries, including Iran, Cuba and Russia, where journalists could lose their lives or freedom for writing a story that the government doesn’t like. Turkey’s Tayyip Recep Erdoğan is currently the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, whom he has branded “agents of subversion,” “foreign spies,” and terrorists. This also happened in Nazi Germany during WWII.
Vietnam’s prime minister has dismissed revelations of party corruption as “despicable stratagems by hostile forces” and pursued a policy of aggressive prosecutions of journalists and bloggers. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has described the country’s reform-oriented press as “a base of operations by foreign enemies inside our country.”
While American presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelt have mostly made a point of wooing the media, the one exception is, unsurprisingly, Richard Nixon. When LA Times reporter Stuart Loory wrote about how much the president’s vacation home had cost taxpayers, Nixon had his staff bar him from the White House. In 1969, Vice President Agnew derided the media writ large as “impudent snobs.”
Trump’s return to Nixonian tactics of media send an alarming signal as we prepare to inaugurate an administration that has already signalled its contempt for ethics scrutiny and conflict of interest norms and disregard for the work of our intelligence agencies.
Thomas Jefferson who once said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
Donald Trump might well answer that question differently. It is up to the press and to the American public to ensure that this is a choice he never gets to make.
We will continue to do our best to expose Trump’s mafia-style approach to the presidency and denounce acts of corruption by his administration.