“Words spoken by the president of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting the oath you took on Jan. 20th to preserve, protect and defend the First Amendment?” U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, asked this important question of President Donald Trump last week.
Trump said NBC should be punished for a story he didn’t like by having its Federal Communications Commission license revoked. The president didn’t understand the broadcaster doesn’t rely on such a license. The threat is nevertheless deeply objectionable.
Trump’s tweets and comments often are empty provocations, mainly intended to inflame his true believers. However, his many threats and insults thrown at working journalists and media organizations have real-world consequences. They must not go unchallenged by any American who genuinely cherishes our own democracy and cares about the pursuit of freedom in the rest of the world.
Trump’s current target is NBC News. It is not the most revered member of the journalistic profession, being widely accused of wimpiness last year in covering the president’s sexual assault admission to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush and this year’s allegations of sexual predations by movie producer Harry Weinstein. The network’s former news anchor Brian Williams was demoted for lying about his experiences covering the Iraq War.
The president’s rant centers on an NBC report that Trump wanted a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The network implied it was this proposal in a July 20 meeting that led Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call Trump a moron. There is no indication the network’s report was incorrect. When asked directly, Tillerson didn’t deny it.
Everyone understands why politicians get frustrated at the news media. It often is an adversarial relationship. Our traditions place the press in the role of independent watchdog over government. Because of this, some politicians regard the news media with the same loathing heaped on police internal-affairs divisions in procedural cop shows. Trump has taken this idea and ramped it up, trying to immunize himself against legitimate news by painting all journalists as liars and traitors — smart alecks out to get him.
The president’s disdain for national media is ironic, considering how his celebrity status led to his election. Without the lavish coverage of him by television, magazines, radio and newspapers, he might still be nothing but a bankrupt casino owner. Most politicians implicitly realize they have some form of symbiotic relationship with the press. Hopefully, this usually is in the public interest by sharing information and building a sense of national unity, but other times it simply derives from a shared desire to ride the publicity train to fame and fortune.
Many politicians indulge in ritual complaints about victimization by the press. Trump far oversteps normal bounds. Calling major news outlets “the enemy of the American people” and saying journalists are “sick people … trying to take away our history and our heritage” places honest news reporters at risk. There have been 20 arrests and 21 physical attacks on U.S. journalists this year, according to Columbia Journalism Review.
Trump’s bullying words also have dangerous consequences beyond our borders. Worldwide, there are 259 journalists currently imprisoned for doing their jobs, CJR reports. In Turkey, Mexico and elsewhere, strongmen attack the independent press. Reporters doing their jobs by shining a light into the dark recesses of criminal enterprises and political repression too often pay for their courage with their lives. By attacking America’s press, the world’s biggest strongman provides inspiration for all who aspire to dominate others.
In a column in CJR, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger notes the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press “is a core part of the American identity. As much as it is about ‘rights’ — the right of dissent, of sovereignty residing in the citizenry and not in the government, and so on — it is also about the character of the society. To listen to people speak of free speech and press is to hear about fortitude, bravery, magnanimity, self-doubt, and the capacity to reason and respond; to recognize the importance of compromise, and to learn to live with some degree of chaos, uncertainty, and discord; and to value creativity and change over always trying to preserve the status quo.”
As Sen. Sasse said, words matter — especially those of the U.S. president. Some are taking his words to heart. Freedom suffers as a result.
Trump swore to uphold the Constitution. He must endeavor to keep his word, even when it comes to freedom of the press.