Last weekend, the President of the United States personally called for a journalist to be fired. The American public should be deeply concerned by this.
The cacophony of craziness that is the daily news cycle of the Trump Administration has a tendency to drown out seemingly innocuous stories like this, particularly when a man with nine credible sexual assault and harassment allegations, not to mention a disdain for the law, almost was elected to the United States Senate. The President of the United States’ use of the bully pulpit to call for the removal of journalists he dislikes is becoming increasingly disturbing.
The count now stands at three. The start of this sinister trend did not come directly from the President, but rather it came from the White House Press Secretary when Jemele Hill accused Donald Trump of being a white supremacist. While not directly from the horse’s mouth, it might as well have been, as the Press Secretary is responsible for establishing the position of the President to the public. Ms. Hill remained steadfast amidst the backlash from the administration and the scorn of thousands who hold the belief that celebrities and athletes should remain apolitical for the sake of their enjoyment.
This past weekend saw the President of the United States personally call for the firing of two journalists in quick succession, followed by a tirade of ‘fake news’ accusations. The heads he called for belonged to Dave Weigel of The Washington Post and Brian Ross of ABC. The attack on Dave Weigel was particularly baseless, as Weigel posted a photo of the rally on his personal twitter, removed it quickly, and apologized. Regardless, even in the case of Ross, it is unacceptable for the President of the United States to call for the firing of journalists.
Delegitimizing journalism is an incredibly concerning trend, albeit one with some history in the United States. Nixon was famous for his broadsides against the press, and Presidents since have used similar tactics to curate their image and limit the press’ (and therefore the public’s) access to information. However, this administration’s direct and vociferous attacks on specific institutions and journalists lead us on a dangerous route to authoritarianism.
One only has to look around the globe to see examples. Erdogan in Turkey has waged war against the press for close to his entire tenure, Putin is famous for his intimidation (and more) of the press, and even stricter censorship and control has been placed on the press, particularly in Hong Kong, as Xi Jingping has consolidated his power as the clear autocrat of China. Ironically, President Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric and attacks on news institutions has led to harsher crackdowns on the press and a record number of journalists imprisoned, as authoritarians around the world are emboldened by the leader of the free world’s lack of concern for projecting democratic values worldwide.
The press provides a strong check on an executive’s power, and the three regimes mentioned previously showcase what can happen when a free press is removed from public society. It allows the executive to have an incredibly broad reach, as the public has little knowledge on what is even being done. How can one stand up for something he believes in if he doesn’t even know it’s being attacked?
This is not to say that the United States is close to becoming those regimes, but the road the country appears to be going down is alarming. What’s even more concerning is the lack of faith Americans have in news institutions, a record low of 32% (and 14% among Republicans). The trajectory if this continues is quite clear, and is far from encouraging. Americans will become further divided as facts and honest reporting lose sway in the political conversation, and partisan loyalists will become increasingly reliant on news from their political leader, rather than an institution that doesn’t have a blatantly biased agenda.
The burden of this problem falls on the people of America, who must see past the occasional mistake of news organizations to see the broader truth they provide. News organizations also have a duty to showcase that they are doing their best to promote accurate and relatively unbiased news. The New York Times and The Washington Post have done a wonderful job of doing this, and their membership has duly increased as a result. TV media on the other hand needs to do some serious soul searching. Fox News is a lost cause at this point, but CNN and MSNBC could still turn their reputations around.
This isn’t to say that they’re blatantly misleading the public like officials from the Trump administration, but they are sensationalizing and curating the news in a way that breeds skepticism. Not every news story is breaking news, and there is only so much analysis that can be done on the tweets of the President or a closed hearing.
If nothing changes, it is more than likely that the country will become increasingly fractured and partisan. The narrow defeat of Roy Moore should be viewed as a warning, not a victory. If Americans want to return to bi-partisanship and effective solutions, everyone will need to be on the same platform with regards to facts. If the two sides are approaching the debate with entirely divergent, or ‘alternative’ facts, there is little doubt that the country will head in an increasingly authoritarian direction. It needs to be stopped now, and the President is the first that needs to be castigated (preferably by his own party) for stoking this atmosphere. No one wins in this race to the bottom.