President Donald Trump’s appetite for flattery and his intolerance for criticism are among his least appealing characteristics. Trump likes journalists who defend or pay homage to him. Those who oppose him can count on a steady stream of over-the-top abuse in which he doesn’t hesitate to distort the truth or call names. But while Trump’s thin skin and readiness to be baited by opponents into unpresidential behavior is deplorable, after 15 months of being fed a steady diet of mainstream-media Trump-bashing, Americans can be sure of one thing: Freedom of the press is alive and well.
But not according to the Reporters Without Borders watchdog group. RWB downgraded the United States in its World Press Freedom Index. In the latest ratings, the U.S. was dropped to 45th (down from 41st in 2016 and 43rd in 2017), where it now sits behind such well-known bastions of journalistic liberty as Surinam, Namibia, Cabo Verde, Andorra, Trinidad and Tobago, and Burkina Faso.
What accounts for this judgment? According to RWB, Trump’s rants about some members of the press being “enemies of the people” and his claims that his critics are peddling “fake news” has endangered the First Amendment.
Many journalists agree with Ryan that RWB’s comparison of Trump’s fulminations to actual repression in authoritarian countries makes sense.
Liberal journalists agree. Some, such as White House correspondent and television talking head April Ryan, think the fact that Trump is “attacking” the press rather than defending it is causing “disdain” for journalists and even leading to death threats. When the issue of the RWB rating came up at a White House press briefing this week, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s dismissal of the critique did not go over well. Many journalists agree with Ryan that RWB’s comparison of Trump’s fulminations to actual repression in authoritarian countries makes sense.
Yet the problem with this argument is painfully obvious.
For all of Trump’s anger at the press, neither RWB nor the roundups of usual suspects on cable-news panels can point to a single instance of the administration’s actually doing anything to interfere with freedom of the press. Yet RWB and many in the liberal media seem to believe that not only should the press enjoy the freedom to criticize those in power, but they ought not to be subjected to the same sort of scrutiny by the government or members of the public. In tyrannies, the government seeks to shut down its press critics. In Trump’s America, it is the free press that seeks to silence its critics.
Many liberals spent the weeks after his November 2016 victory hysterically predicting that a Trump administration would mean tyranny and the end of democracy. But no one is interfering with the ability of publications and television channels to obsess over the president’s flaws or to denounce him as an ignorant, vulgar would-be authoritarian. It’s true that Trump and his supporters hate cable-news channels other than Fox and regularly decry those outlets that refuse to flatter the president as failing purveyors of “fake news.” Yet the president’s fury at his detractors doesn’t prevent them from spending every news cycle endlessly rehashing the latest Trump scandal du jour or refloating speculation about a smoking gun proving collusion with Russia that is always just around the corner but never actually appears.
Far from being discouraged by the disapproval of the White House, outlets that have thrown caution to the wind and joined the resistance, such as MSNBC, have been rewarded with higher ratings and revenue.
For decades, conservatives have criticized the uniform liberalism of most mainstream media outlets. Fox News’ success, which predates Trump by more than two decades, was predicated on the fact that its core audience of conservative viewers made up about half of the American people and had been ignored or disdained by the legacy media. Until Trump came along, their attitude toward conservative media critics consisted of a claim that they were practicing objective journalism. But with Trump, the need to maintain that disingenuous pose of impartiality seems obsolete. Network news correspondents at CNN and MSNBC now feel free to act like opinion journalists even at White House pressers, debating Sanders and other Trump spokespersons instead of just asking pointed questions.
Rather than seeking fairness, the press is heading in the other direction. Trump’s accusations of “fake news” are themselves often misleading or false. But many in the press seem to take the position that any questioning of the accuracy of their reporting or the fairness of their analyses and opinion segments is tantamount to repression. It is not for nothing that Brent Bozell, whose Media Research Center pioneered the work of analyzing liberal media bias, has now come, as he said in an interview with Politico, to view his efforts to hold journalists accountable and force them to improve their work as a “useless proposition.” In the current atmosphere, he says, “the press now has become so militant, so radicalized, that it sees itself on a mission. And it has nothing but disdain for conservatives.”
While his despair may be debatable, Bozell is right that many in the press seem to have no shame about acting in a manner that justifies former White House aide and Breitbart.com CEO Steve Bannon’s accusation that the media is the true opposition party to Trump. Worse than that, they have come to believe that criticism of their stance, whether it is the result of sober research or off-the-cuff anger from Trump, is equally illegitimate.
Indeed, the RWB analysis of the state of press freedom in the United States betrayed the same sort of liberal bias that Trump and conservatives have been complaining about. While it cannot cite examples of the government’s spying on or threatening the press — as the Obama administration did in its efforts to intimidate Fox — it does highlight the government’s arrest of one journalist. However, the example it cites has nothing to do with press freedom, since the journalist in question, Manuel Doron, who runs a Spanish-language website in Memphis, is an illegal immigrant who has been on the run from the law since 2007. If that’s the best RWB can do in terms of proof of Trump-era repression, they’ll have to try harder.
Trump’s attacks on the press may be unseemly, and his charges of “fake news” often have more to do with news that accurately portrays him in an unflattering light than with the publication of falsehoods. But that doesn’t mean that liberal media bias is a myth or that much of the press hasn’t shed all pretense of objectivity with its open contempt for Trump. Nothing in the Constitution guarantees journalists freedom from criticism, whether it is fair or unfair, harsh or gentle. To the contrary, as is true of Trump, they should be just as willing to take criticism as they are to dish it out. The notion that any attempt to hold them accountable is tantamount to trashing the First Amendment turns the entire concept of a free press and democracy on its head. While Trump talks like an authoritarian, he has governed like someone who believes in democracy. Ironically, it is some of his press critics who seem most interested in shutting down their opponents.