At the time of our nation’s inception, the Founders supported an open, free exchange of ideas as a necessary ingredient for the survival of a representative democracy. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Freedoms of speech and press in the First Amendment, according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black are essential to the U.S. constitution. “The Framers knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.” Censorship is used to stop truths or ideas from emerging, to prevent the ability to draw attention to powerful people or governments, or to undermine ideology. President-elect Donald Trump understands the power of a free and independent press, according to Robert Reich, and does what all tyrants do: he tries to “squelch it.”
Reich, the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has outlined seven techniques that Donald Trump has used to undermine the power of the press. Reich calls these strategies “worrying.”
1. Berate the media: Trump “summoned” two-dozen TV news anchors and executives and berated them for their election coverage.
According to Vanity Fair, sources told the New York Post that Trump, in a dressing-down, characterized the assembled media execs as a “f***ing firing squad,” with the president-elect attacking CNN in particular. “Trump kept saying, ‘We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful dishonest media who got it all wrong,’ ” the source said. Reich related how another person who attended the meeting said Trump “truly doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment. He thinks we are supposed to say what he says and that’s it.”
2. Blacklist critical media: Trump’s Facebook page read that the Washington Post was “phony and dishonest” and later revoked their press credentials.
Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said, “Donald Trump’s decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press. When coverage doesn’t correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished.” CNN Money has the Trump Blacklist of media outlets, which includes Huffington Post, Politico, and Buzzfeed.
3. Turn the public against the media. Trump refers to journalists as “lying,” “dishonest,” “disgusting” and “scum.”
Reich recalls how Trump referred to journalists at his rallies: “I hate some of these people,” adding (presumably in response to allegations of Vladimir Putin’s treatment of dissident journalists) “but I’d never kill ‘em.” NBC reporter Kay Tur asked Trump if the possibility of a foreign government releasing emails gave him pause. “Here’s what gives me pause– be quiet,” Trump snapped at Tur. Trump questioned the objectivity of Jeffrey Bezos, a founder of Amazon, because he “thinks I would go after him for antitrust.” When the New York Times wrote that his transition team was in disarray, Trump tweeted that the newspaper was “just upset that they looked like fools in their coverage of me” during the presidential campaign.
4. Condemn satirical or critical comments. Trump condemns the coverage he’s received from various artistic outlets.
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” continues its post-election mimicry of Trump through Alex Baldwin’s portrayal. A recent depiction of Trump ”as overwhelmed by the prospect of being president” prompted the president-elect to tweet that it was a “totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?”
Also, in a post-performance message of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, expressed many citizens’ fears to audience member, Vice President-elect Mike Pence. He pleaded for the Trump administration to be aware of the “diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations” on the cast and how they represent the U.S. citizenry. In response, Trump tweeted that Pence had been “harassed” and insisted that the cast and producers of the show, “which I hear is highly overrated,” apologize.
5. Threaten the media directly. Trump said he plans to change libel laws in the United States about suing news organizations.
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win … I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
The Supreme Court established the First Amendment principles that govern the country’s libel laws in 1964, according to the New York Times. In the unanimous decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the court said that public officials had to prove that false statements were made with “actual malice,” meaning news organizations had to have knowingly published a falsehood or published it with “reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Reich reminds us that, during the campaign, Trump specifically threatened to sue the Times for libel in response to an article that featured two women accusing him of touching them inappropriately years ago. Trump claimed the allegations were false, and his lawyer demanded that the newspaper retract the story and issue an apology. Trump also threatened legal action after the Times published and wrote about part of his 1995 tax return.
6. Limit media access. Trump hasn’t had a news conference since July.
According to the White House Historical Association, since Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential press conference in March 1913, all sixteen of his successors have used the sessions as a basic part of their publicity strategies. The sessions have survived because reporters found them useful for developing information, citizens saw them as valuable for making judgments about their chief executives, and presidents and their staffs saw them as a primary strategy for explaining their policies. Presidents could give speeches laying out their policies, but press conferences became a major way to explain the intricacies of those policies as the proposals made their way through the legislative process.
Reich states that Trump has blocked the media from traveling with him, or even knowing whom he’s meeting with. His phone call with Vladimir Putin, which occurred shortly after the election, was first reported by the Kremlin. “This is highly unusual,” Reich comments. In 2000, President-elect George W. Bush called a press conference three days after the Supreme Court determined the outcome of the election. In 2008, President-elect Obama also meet with the press three days after being elected.
7. Bypass the media and communicate with the public directly. The American public learns what Trump thinks through his tweets.
Shortly after the election, Trump released a video message outlining some of the executive actions he plans to take on his first day in office.
Aides say Trump has also expressed interest in continuing to hold the large rallies that became a staple of his candidacy. They say he likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide. Reich defines the word “media” as from “intermediate” between news makers and the public and says that responsible media hold the powerful accountable by asking them hard questions and reporting on what they do.
“Apparently Trump wants to eliminate such intermediaries,” Reich says. He recalls that, “historically, these seven techniques have been used by demagogues to erode the freedom and independence of the press. Even before he’s sworn in, Trump seems intent on doing exactly this.”
It will be up to us as an informed citizenry to make sure the freedom and independence of the press is assured, to enhance our cultural climate so that all voices can be heard, and to protect the United States from the powers of tyranny that President-elect Trump and others might feel able to wield.