During the Trump administration, the U.S. has fallen two places on the World Press Freedom Index, from 43rd to 45th (out of 180), thanks in no small part to the 45th president’s repeated attacks on the press. That puts the Land of the Free behind Burkina Faso and Romania.
In the new rankings, released Wednesday by Reporters Without Borders, the first year of Trump’s presidency has “fostered further decline” in the press freedoms formerly enjoyed by journalists.
Labeling The Press “The Enemy Of The People”
As the L.A. Times reported back in February 2017, Trump tweeted that the “fake news” media was an “enemy of the American people.” And while his choice of words may seem like the hyperbolic ramblings of an angry demagogue, there’s actually a deeper significance.
The first is that when politicians start naming enemies, they’re following a bad precedent. Richard Nixon loved using the term, to describe the press, as well as Paul Newman, of all people. Similarly, FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover used the term to describe Martin Luther King.
Second, the phrase “enemy of the people” originated in an 1882 play. It’s unlikely that Trump has read it – as Business Insider reports, he generally only likes to read about himself – but the significance of the word choice isn’t lost on the New York Times. Long story short, “enemy of the people” is about a scientist who tries to save his town from water pollution, only to be made a scapegoat. Put simply, the notion of somebody trying to do the right thing, only to be painted as an adversary by those in power, is an apt metaphor for Trump’s attacks on the press.
Success wherever you look.
— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) April 25, 2018
And Trump likely didn’t even realize it.
Barring Access To The White House
Trump’s 2017 tweet about the “enemy of the people” was followed by a press conference in which certain press outlets were barred from the White House. Those included several that the president had deemed “fake news,” and included the New York Times, CNN, and The Los Angeles Times.
In the places of those media outlets were conservative publications hand-picked by Trump, such as Breitbart News, the Washington Times and OANN, a conservative television outlet which just happened to employ Trump associate Corey Lewandowski.
Calls For ‘Licensing’ Of Media Outlets
In what may possibly be the most startling and terrifying of all of Trump’s attacks on the press (except what you’ll read about below), Trump has called for revoking the licenses of media outlets who publish stories that he doesn’t like.
As the Hill reported in October 2017, Trump was so incensed about an NBC News story that he tweeted that the network’s license should be revoked.
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
As the meme going around Facebook says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.” For starters, major news outlets like NBC and such aren’t “licensed” at all. Local affiliates are licensed by the FCC, but those licenses aren’t subject to revocation based on how or what they report, and certainly not by the whims of a temperamental and easily-hurt president. What’s more, for the FCC to revoke a license based on anything other than egregious violations (such as failing to censor F-bombs) would violate just about every word of the First Amendment.
A Database Of Journalists
This is where the Trump administration’s attacks on the freedom of the press move from comedically aggravating to legitimately terrifying.
As reported by the Inquisitr, earlier this month Trump’s Department of Homeland Security started seeking bids for someone to compile and manage a database of “journalists, bloggers, and media influencers.” What’s more, the database would monitor articles and blog posts for “tone and content.”
Forbes writer Michelle Fabio is clear about the motive behind this move.
“Unfortunately, increasing government encroachment on the freedom of the press is the sinister backdrop to all of this.”
What the Trump administration would do with this list remains unclear, but the fact that such a list even exists brings back images of Soviet Russia or modern-day Myanmar. Long-story short, it is not the government’s job to be monitoring what journalists write.
What This All Means For Freedom Of The Press
So far, Trump’s attacks on the freedom of the press have been limited to angry pronouncements with little to no practical effect, and the terrifying creation of a database of journalists, the ultimate purpose of which remains unclear.
For now, we journalists are still free to write without fear of prosecution. That’s not to say that American journalists haven’t been jailed, harassed, or beaten up – they absolutely have – during the Trump administration. But those arrests haven’t resulted in criminal charges.