Journalists Should Be Terrified

A free press has rarely been so necessary. And we have every reason to believe that Trump will try to bring it to heel.

Corey Lewandowski shoving Michelle Fields.
A still image from video of Corey Lewandowski shoving reporter Michelle Fields at a Florida rally in March.

Washington Post

It is hard to imagine what good will come for the vulnerable among us during a Trump presidency, the fruits of a reactionary, xenophobic, hateful campaign. The health of the planet will suffer as climate change goes unaddressed. There is a long list of nightmares that are now poised to come true. Among them: Life might soon become very ugly for journalists.

As a voice for the weak and powerless, a free press is important especially in neo-authoritarian conditions, and it should be obvious by now that Trump wants to curb its efficacy. As a candidate, he consistently maligned the mainstream media as corrupt and dishonest. He portrayed the press as a group of ethically compromised elitists colluding to thwart his candidacy and stifle the voices of his supporters. He represents a group of people who see a strong independent press not as a necessary check on accumulated power in America but as a bothersome impediment to the accumulation of that power. And he will almost certainly use the office of the presidency to bring the press to heel.

Within limits, of course. As far as I know, the freedom of the press is still guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But even within those constraints, there’s still plenty that Trump could do to vitiate the media. He could start with the nation’s legal protections for the press. While campaigning, Trump promised to “open up” libel laws, making it easier for powerful people to sue the reporters who scrutinize their lives or fail to show them the proper deference. The rich and vindictive will be newly emboldened to use lawsuits—and the threat of lawsuits—to intimidate journalists into silence and inaction.

Trump has a lifelong habit of suing journalists who cover him unfavorably. One of his big donors, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, bankrolled the lawsuit that successfully put Gawker out of business. (Among the litigious entities that are certainly cheering a Trump presidency: the Church of Scientology.) In an October interview with CBS 4 Miami, Trump praised England’s libel system—in which people being sued for libel must affirmatively prove that what they said is true—and suggested that the United States should follow suit. “[The media] can say anything they want about you or me and there doesn’t have to be any apology,” said Trump. “England has a system where if they are wrong things happen.”

Things happen. The first thing that will happen, if Trump gets his way, will be an uptick in libel lawsuits. Of course, successful libel lawsuits rely on judges who are sympathetic to the claimants, and Trump cannot remake the entire judiciary in one stroke. But many journalists and their employers don’t have the wherewithal to fight lawsuits, even baseless ones, to the end. Perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the press under a Trump administration might not be that he will try to shackle it, but that it will sometimes choose to shackle itself. I have no doubt that many, many journalists will continue to investigate and report critically on Trump, and will be backed to the hilt by their editors. But I fear there will be others who weigh the costs and benefits of hitting Trump hard, and ultimately decide the story isn’t worth it.

As president, Trump will almost certainly foster an atmosphere that normalizes the vilification of the media and forces reporters into a defensive posture. He regularly taunted journalists on the campaign trail. He publicly mocked the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. At a campaign rally just last week, he menaced NBC reporter Katy Tur from the stage. As president, he will be newly empowered to retaliate against journalists whom he deems hostile. This retaliation, in many cases, might be subtly enforced: encouraging federal agencies to stall or ignore Freedom of Information Act requests, holding limited press briefings and refusing to take questions from unfriendly reporters, curbing reportorial access to relevant events and personnel. It’s true that Trump will often grant interviews to reporters who have uncovered dirt on him; it’s also true that his campaign enforced a black list on some organizations.

To be fair, Trump’s recent presidential predecessors haven’t been especially friendly to the media, either. The Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted government whistleblowers. The George W. Bush administration saw the press as just another special interest and treated reporters with evident contempt: stalling on FOIA requests, skimping presidential press conferences. When the New York Times broke the warrantless wiretapping story, some conservatives called it treason.

The difference between Trump and his predecessors is that, if the Times were to break such a story under his administration, there’s every reason to think he might actually try to have the reporters prosecuted for treason. Trump has surrounded himself with people who themselves clearly disdain the press, and his behavior has emboldened his fans and surrogates to indulge their worst impulses. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, assaulted a reporter who was trying to ask the candidate a question. His campaign messages were amplified by a corps of hateful frogs who used Twitter to issue misogynistic, anti-Semitic threats to journalists who reported critically on the Trump campaign. These threats will likely continue and intensify over the next four years. In Trump’s America, it will not be unreasonable for adversarial reporters to fear vigilante justice meted out by violent eggs who now feel safe to show their true faces. Trump owes his presidency to millions of Americans who apparently deem Alex Jones and racist email forwards more credible than the Washington Post and the New York Times. “Things” ought to “happen” to reporters who are “wrong,” Trump said, and the imprecision of all three terms is reason for dread.

Trump will take office in January. Between now and then, the cable news networks that traffic in vacuous false equivalencies and aided Trump’s rise by giving him so much uncritical attention should subject themselves to a long dark night of the soul. More broadly, the media must reckon with the fact that all of its reporting and investigations and editorializing and polls and data visualizations could not forestall this outcome. Almost every mainstream media outlet editorialized against Trump, and their exertions seem to have had little effect on voters. The best stories of this election cycle did not reach or resonate with the general public, and the media needs to figure out why. But, most of all, the media needs to prepare itself for the next four years. Its work will soon become more difficult, but it has never been more important.

See more Slate coverage of the election.