ASU prof says Trump media attacks are endangering democracy
In a scathing report recounting his complaints about individual media outlets and journalists, calls for changes to libel laws and prosecution of leakers, a journalism advocacy group said President Donald Trump’s treatment of the press has eroded public trust in the media.
“By the time Trump was elected president in November 2016, Americans appeared to be irreconcilably divided, not just politically, ideologically and emotionally, but factually,” a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists states. “Poll after poll showed that supporters and opponents of Trump believed very different versions of what they think of as facts because they depend primarily on sources of news and information they trust, regardless of their veracity.”
The report is penned by Leonard Downie, Jr., a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who formerly worked as executive editor at The Washington Post.
Across 40 pages, Downie lays out in detail efforts Trump and his administration have taken to diminish negative reporting and clamp down on the release of information, and the frequent vitriol aimed at reporters and media outlets from the president’s Twitter account.
“Along with Trump’s thousands of documented false statements and his promotion of discredited conspiracy theories, the administration’s attacks on the credibility of the news media have dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country,” the report states.
It offers recommendations for the Trump administration to rectify the flaws the report identifies, including resuming daily White House press briefings and dropping espionage charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which experts have called a potential threat to press freedom.
The report ties Trump’s rhetoric to hate mail and threats against the press, including the inoperable pipe bomb sent to CNN in October 2018, as well as efforts from leaders around the world to crack down on journalists, most notably the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Downie’s findings range from personal insults Trump lobs at reporters to more official actions from the administration, such as the eight prosecutions of leakers the Trump administration has launched and Customs and Border Protection questioning and searching journalists at the border.
The report acknowledges that the Obama administration also prosecuted people within the government who leaked classified information to reporters and collected communications between reporters and their sources, but points out the Trump administration has taken similar actions, with the additional layer of the president’s public attacks aimed at chipping away the media’s credibility.
Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the trend of prosecuting leakers identified in the report is especially concerning because journalists can be caught up in discovery and criminal investigations, as happened during the Obama administration with Fox News reporter James Rosen.
More broadly though, Townsend said the prosecution of leakers can have a chilling effect and make scarce the sources that are key to the journalistic goal of uncovering the workings of the government.
“Those actions have a chilling effect on whistleblowers, on sources, on people within government,” Townsend, who was quoted in the report, said in an interview with Courthouse News. “It discourages them from talking to the news media. Period. And sources are key to journalism and without those sources, the journalism dries up.”
In addition to the prosecutions, the report notes Trump has threatened to review licenses for outlets he sees as unfavorable and that his reelection campaign has filed libel suits against The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times over pieces they published about Trump and Russia.
To provide context in the report, Downie interviewed journalists, professors, lawyers specializing in media and people who worked in the Trump administration, including Michael Dubke, who served as White House communications director under Trump.
Dubke offers the biggest defense of Trump throughout the report, saying he offers more personal access to reporters than other presidents, even though his White House did away with formal press briefings until the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
“He is probably the most accessible president in the last 20 to 30 years,” Dubke is quoted as saying in the report. “He’s accessible sometimes several times a day — in the Oval Office with foreign leaders, in other White House sprays, around Air Force One, and on his way to Marine One.”
While ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl agreed that Trump answers more questions directly from reporters than previous presidents, Downie noted the forum in which Trump takes the questions allows him to shun follow-ups and take only favorable questions that come from friendly outlets.
Downie does not put all the blame on decreasing trust in media among Americans on Trump, however, saying news outlets have allowed straight news reporting, analysis and opinion to mingle too much on their pages and airwaves, making it difficult for news consumers to tell which they are reading or watching.
Despite the challenges, Downie says he believes the press has responded well to the challenge.
“While almost everything about American life continues to change rapidly and unpredictably, the importance of the press and how it meets the challenge will only grow,” he wrote.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the report.