By Editor-in-Chief Megan Field
Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding media outlets, which he consistently labels “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”, inspired threatening communications towards the Boston Globe earlier this month. According to the FBI, 68 year old Robert Chain, who has now been charged, rang the newspaper and threatened to shoot journalists due to their “treasonous and seditious” reporting of the President. This came after the publication called on over 300 editorial boards, both local and national, to push back against Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the media. In their piece on the 16th August, the New York Times highlighted the importance of being able to criticise and correct the press, whilst affirming that “insisting that truths you don’t like are ‘fake news’ is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy”.
Despite this, just hours after Chain’s arrest, the President continued to criticise the press at a rally for a Republican Senate candidate in Indiana. Pointing to the cameras, he accused news outlets of turning off their equipment when he began to criticise them. Moreover, he attacked CNN’s President, Jeff Zuckerberg, over twitter on Thursday, stating that the organisation’s “hatred and extreme bias” towards him made it unable to function.
Notably, recent events are merely one link in a long chain of actions against the media and others who have criticised Mr Trump. During the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Missouri, the President stated: “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Whilst the phrase “fake news” is commonplace in Trump’s vocabulary, this statement goes a step further; this is an outright plea with the people to brandish all media as irrelevant; to only listen to what he says. To the extent that this sentiment is played out in Trump’s actions, such as banning CNN reporter Kaitlin Collins from an event at the White House after she shouted questions in the oval office, it is evidently harmful. However, a less evident, yet equally concerning, consequence of labelling the press the ‘enemy of the people’ is the erosion of the value of the freedom of the press.
Such a label should be a concern to any democracy, but none more so than the US, where the First Amendment to the Constitution is revered as an almost sacred truth. The Founding Fathers asserted that “Congress shall make no law respecting (among other things)… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. It is ironic that the same President who recently passed an executive order concerning the importance of religious liberty, should then stamp on freedom of speech and the press in such a dramatic way.
There is a case for arguing that his comments, though concerning, are largely inconsequential. Those who oppose the President will certainly not be swayed by his recent barrage of tweets, and his supporters likely already distrust publications such as the New York Times. Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. In a recent poll, the Globe found that 29% of American’s agreed with Trump that the media is the enemy of the people, whilst 26% said the President should be able to close News outlets for bad behaviour. When such sentiment is played out in events such as Chain’s threats, and the shootings at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, the dangers become all too clear.
It is not only the impact but also the history of phrases such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people” which should send alarm bells ringing. The latter was populated in the 20C, adopted by dictators from Stalin to Mao. More recently, Politifact cited 15 instances where foreign leaders had invoked the phrase 'fake news'. For example, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad utilised “fake news” to dismiss an Amnesty international report that up to 13,000 prisoners had been executed in one of his military prisons. Furthermore, an opinion piece in the official newspaper of the Communist party in China brandished the headline “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years”.
This narrative is nothing new: what is new is the extent to which it is being employed in a supposedly liberal democracy. It has the power to incite violence and turn people against the press. Whilst press coverage can be biased, to reject 80% as nonsensical makes a mockery of democracy, and as such should be heeded.
Sources and Further Reading
- Doha Madani, ‘Trump Attacks CNN, NY Times And NBC At Indiana Rally’, Huffington Post (30 August 2018)
- Rozina Sabur, ‘Donald Trump declares newspapers the 'opposition party' as they rebuke 'dirty war' on free press with coordinated editorials’, The Telegraph (16 August 2018)
- Jon Swaine, ‘FBI arrests man who threatened to kill Boston Globe staff for criticizing Trump’, The Guardian (30 August 2018)
- Emma Graham Harrison, ‘Enemy of the people': Trump's phrase and its echoes of totalitarianism’, The Guardian (3 August 2018)
- Anna North, ‘Trump called the press “the enemy of the people.” Now more than 300 papers are pushing back’, Vox (16 August 2018)
- John Kruzel, “Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ epithet emboldens despots around the world”, Politifact (22 January 2018)
- Chris Cillizza, 'Donald Trump just said something truly terrifying', CNN (25 July 2018)
- Gabriella Muñoz, ‘Trump: 80 percent of media is fake news’, The Washington Times (22 August 2018)
Image Credit: Michael Candelori @ Flickr