SPEAKING at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday, President Trump took his anti-media rhetoric to a new level, doubling down on his description of journalists as “the enemy of the people” and calling for an end to the use of anonymous sources. This on a day when his press secretary Sean Spicer barred reporters from The New York Times, BBC, BuzzFeed News, CNN, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post from his daily White House press briefing.
The unrelenting attacks on the news media damage American democracy. They appear to be part of a deliberate strategy to undermine public confidence and trust by sowing confusion and uncertainty about what is true. But they do even greater damage outside the United States, where America’s standing as a global beacon of press freedom is being drastically eroded. This is not just a matter of United States prestige. At a time when journalists around the world are being killed and imprisoned in record numbers, Mr. Trump’s relentless tirades against “fake news” are emboldening autocrats and depriving threatened and endangered journalists of one of their strongest supporters — the US government.
Of course the United States’ record on press freedom is far from perfect. During the Obama administration, aggressive leak investigations — including a record number of prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act — regularly ensnared the press. But the US has had tremendous moral influence when it spoke out about press freedom violations, and not just because of the commitment to the First Amendment. The fact that United States political leaders regularly withstood relentless criticism in the press gave them legitimacy when they called for the protection of critical voices in repressive societies.
For example, the Obama administration, through public statements and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, helped win the release of imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia and Vietnam. President George W. Bush regularly spoke out about press freedom violations, in places like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Earlier this month, the Venezuelan government suspended CNN’s Spanish language network following accusations by President Nicolás Maduro that the network manipulates the news. President Trump was silent. Really, what could he say?
More ominously, when Mr. Trump was asked in December to comment on the systematic killings of journalists in Russia, he shrugged. “Well I think our country does plenty of killing, too,” he told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. So far, Mr. Trump’s war on the media has been mostly a war of words. But those words have consequences. Mr. Trump’s attacks on the use of anonymous sources undermine the work of journalists reporting sensitive stories in repressive and dangerous environments from Turkey, Iraq to Mexico, where source protection is a matter of life and death. Mr. Trump’s attacks on the news media follow a political logic. They rally those among his supporters who despise the media for its perceived liberal bias; they erode the credibility of the media itself, undermining demands for accountability; and they serve as the ultimate distraction, in the most recent example deflecting public attention from reports that Trump administration officials are impeding the investigation into their ties to Russia.
Thus there is a risk that responding to Mr. Trump’s provocations will further advance his aims. Still, one point must be made: In President Trump’s carpet bombing of the news media, it is not just the United States’ global reputation that is collateral damage. Rather, it is the brave journalists on the front line who risk their lives and liberty to bring the world the news. It is to our great shame that they can no longer count on the support of the United States. The writer is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
— Courtesy: The New York Times