More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.
Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.
.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media
extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rusher, talk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.
Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.
.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.
.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics
.. in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.
.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.
.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it
leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including
- the judiciary,
- the intelligence community,
- immigrants, and
- members of certain races or religions.
.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.
.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.
.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”
.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”
Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:
If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.
.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.
For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.
.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”
that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.
Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest
that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.
The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.
.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.
.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.
.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls
to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.