President Trump is scheduled to host a farce of a media celebration, a Fake News Awards presentation, on Wednesday. It’s as though, once the Hollywood awards balloting got underway, he wished desperately for his own party with golden statuettes and an adoring audience. At the White House press briefing Tuesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred to it as a “potential event,” and it would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as just another bullying stunt, a harmless exercise in self-aggrandizement. Easy, but wrong.
The president’s escalating assault on the free press is part of his broader effort to weaken our democracy for his own political and personal gain.
As a candidate, Trump didn’t hide his contempt for the men and women covering his campaign. His cries of “fake news” were rivaled only by chants of “lock her up” and “build that wall,” a rage-fueled trinity that he brought with him into the Oval Office. It’s a crutch he leans on, betraying his own feeble standing with most Americans and designed to grind critics and truth tellers into silence.
The president’s penchant for threatening and belittling our 1st Amendment-protected press isn’t isolated; it has spread like a virus among his team, supporters and elected loyalists. Press Secretary Sanders repeats his barbs , and his closest advisors offer them up as talking points in interviews. His supporters turned his retweet of a bloodied CNN logo into a meme. Even members of Congress and candidates for high offices now parrot the president’s fake news claims.
Trump is encouraging the violation of press freedoms around the globe.
Worse yet, Trump is encouraging the violation of press freedoms around the globe, in places where media have less robust defenses than the U.S. Trump’s “fake news” attack is now an authoritarian dog whistle giving cover to foreign despots. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and Syria’s Bashar Assad, as well as Chinese and Russian officials, have used it to dismiss unfavorable news stories. Libyan leaders followed his lead to discredit CNN International’s reporting on the slave trade in their country. Tweets calling the press illegitimate matter especially when they provide cover for torture, genocide, mass murder and human rights abuses.
The year is little more than two weeks old, and already one of the worst global trends of 2017 — violence against journalists — shows no signs of slowing. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 64 journalists were killed in 2017, and 44 of those slayings were directly linked to their reporting. Since New Year’s Day, attacks against journalists have been reported in Mexico (including one that was fatal), Pakistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere.
Just last week, the government of Myanmar arrested two Reuters jounalists for reporting on mass graves, evidence of the genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Arrests are all too common among oppressive governments — they tend to draw less attention than murder — and the illusion of justice through sham trials gives the thinnest veil of legitimacy to their efforts to quiet critics and conceal wrongdoing.
The United States was one of the first nations to enshrine protections for the press in our laws and Constitution. Our history is replete with examples of Americans ardently defending journalists around the world. Yet America can no longer rest confidently that we are immune to the tide of antipathy toward the free press. We cannot ignore the disturbing trends within our own borders.
U.S.-based journalists don’t fear for their life when reporting on the White House, but journalists have been assaulted covering recent campaigns. Trump has threatened to revoke the TV networks’ broadcast licenses when he didn’t like their coverage (networks aren’t licensed, only local stations). He has more than once proclaimed his intent to change libel laws to protect himself from negative stories.
Here and abroad journalists continue to investigate and report on the stories essential to preserving government accountability. Their work is one of the few means by which corruption can be exposed, truth learned, and informed votes cast. It isn’t enough that we praise their efforts and express our support for the 1st Amendment. We have to oppose the president’s attempts to undo those freedoms, specifically and directly. Although some may laugh when Trump hands out his Fake News Awards, we should call them what they are: a dangerous assault on truth, the Constitution and American democracy.
Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn were independent presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2016. They are cofounders of Stand Up Republic, a nonprofit working to protect U.S. democracy.
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