(Originally published on Pecorino & Eggs on February 16, 2017)
Much has been said about Donald Trump’s relationship with the so-called “liberal media.” He’s berated journalists, mocked reporters, and banned certain media outlets from various events, including his first ever press conference as POTUS. He’s told blatant lies and then, when the media has reported the lies, used those reports as evidence of fake news. Donald Trump’s sheer disdain and aloofness when it comes to matters of the press is alarming, and each and every journalist should take measure about what his idiocy is capable of.
This is the cautionary tale of Donald J. Trump’s ever-growing “media problem:”
The Zenger Trial depiction in 1734
The press has often had a tumultuous relationship with political figures. Back in the early 18th century, in the British American colonies, newspapers were steadily growing in popularity. And, as readership was expanding, editors found their readers responded favorably to satirical criticisms of local governors. In 1734, one governor in particular, William Cosby (yes, his real name was Bill Cosby), took umbrage with such criticisms and shut down The New York Weekly Journal. Subsequently, the Journal’s editor, John Peter Zenger, was subpoenaed and taken to trial for Criminal Libel. Defense lawyers for Mr. Zenger argued truth was a valid defense against libel, and the courts ruled against Bill Cosby.
After his acquittal, Zenger became a hero for the freedom of the press movement and by the mid 1760s there were 24 weekly newspapers across the 13 colonies. By the end of the 18th century, the founding fathers—those guys every goddamn politician seems keen on emulating—wrote the Constitution. The rest, I wish I could say, is history. But, over the years, the 1st Amendment has become a topic of severe scrutiny and hasn’t always been honored to its fullest degree.
Press problems go beyond the borders of the United States. In some countries, governments and dictatorships have resorted to propaganda to diminish the press’ credibility. One of the worst examples of this came in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. In 1927, Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (MPEP), founded Der Angriff (“The Attack”), using it solely to advance the Nazi agenda. Journalists who defied or criticized the MPEP were routinely imprisoned.
Courtesy: AZ Quotes
Now, tell me if any of this sounds hauntingly recognizable: One of Goebbels’ first acts as minister was to ban the Nationaler Sozialist, one of Berlin’s evening newspapers, often critical of Hitler and his fascist regime.
Additionally, after Hitler’s election, the Nazi party only had 37% support from the German citizens—a stat that angered Hitler. Goebbels, being the good lapdog he was, set out to increase the support to 100%. But how does one do this? They create a context of a deteriorating economy and a fragile society, and offer a narrative as to who’s to blame for that deterioration. In this case: the Jews. Using the Nazi newspapers, Goebbels organized and authorized boycotts of Jewish shops and businesses. This, as we all know, was only the beginning of the Jewish persecution.
Lastly, according to Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel’s book, Doctor Goebbels: His Life And Death, Goebbels, along with other members of Hitler’s cabinet, had to deal with Hitler’s manic leadership style in which he repeatedly gave contradictory orders to his subordinates. If none of this is striking you as eerily familiar, then perhaps you should read on. If you understand exactly what I’m talking about, I’m fine if you wish to forego the rest of this history lesson and curl up in the tub and cry.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China's constitution affords its citizens freedom of speech and press, but the opacity of Chinese media regulations allows authorities to crack down on news stories by claiming they expose state secrets and endanger the country. Thus, really not affording them freedom of the press at all. In her book, The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China, He Qinglian, a former Chinese journalist, expands on the Chinese government’s influence on the media: “News reports about important social or economic issues must first be reviewed and approved by the appropriate department-in-charge.” Absolutely no negative assessments of national economic policy may be published. And, in order to give the illusion there are no corrupt government offices, stories of corruption are regularly muted.
Source: The New York Times
While Article 35 of China’s Constitution grants free speech, the interpretation of the Article is left up to the courts. And, yes, you guessed it, the judges appointed to these courts follow the directives of the Chinese Communist Party. To this day, there is still no legal protection for journalists nor are there consequences, severe or otherwise, for those that attack journalists. The Chinese government has established a set of rules they blatantly ignore. This would be like hitting a home run in baseball, only for the umpire to tell you you’ve been ejected from the game.
Much like China, North Korea’s Constitution also guarantees the freedom of speech and press. The only problem with this is: all reporting not sanctioned by the government is subject to severe restrictions. What’s more, according to Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, “listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts or possessing its publications—whether it be newspapers, magazines, or journals—are considered crimes against the state.” Penalties for such crimes include hard labor, prison sentences, and the death penalty. Perhaps what’s most startling is the fact that North Koreans can be interrogated or arrested for speaking critically about the government. And, much like Nazi-Germany, state-owned broadcast news outlets serve as mouthpieces for the North Korea’s propaganda.
And, finally, tonight we come to Donald J. Trump, a man who has lambasted media outlets he deems to be unfair, and has propped up sources of fake news more often than Steve Bannon has attacked minorities. It’s nothing new that whenever an argument has been presented to Mr. Trump—an argument that discredits either him or his sources—he chooses not to engage with the argument, but rather attack the persons making it. He attacks them using childish insults and moronic rhetoric, often using famous S.A.T. words such as “stupid” or “dumb,” and does whatever he can to discredit the source making their claim. He’s that annoying kid on the playground who keeps yelling, “I know you are, but what am I?” Trump searches for facts—no matter how baseless and inane—to support whatever statement he chooses to make.
Watch. I can do it, too. The Earth is 100%, unequivocally, without question, flat. Here’s my proof from Flat Earth Science and Bible. This would be funny were it not for the very realistic possibility Donald Trump goes on Fox & Friends and spouts about the credibility of Flat Earth Science and Bible.
Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s Press Secretary and the man who just discovered what the function of a tailor is, does his best to fuel the president’s propaganda, angrily mouth-breathing his way through, what can only be described as: circus press conferences. Going against long-standing tradition, Spicer tends to call on news outlets that are far less mainstream. Reporters from conservative outlets like Breitbart, One America News Network and Newsmax are regularly tapped for questions, while Reuters, ABC News, and the Washington Post are often overlooked. The press has to be rolling their eyes every time Spicer steps to the podium. He shouts, “I’ve already answered your question” after clearly not answering the question, while spewing spittle on the reporter from the Associated Press, all the while thinking this will make him seem less incompetent.
Fake news has risen significantly over the years. Most of the time these “alternative facts” are easily disregarded. However, since the evolution of the Trump campaign, fake news has somehow become credible. There are two reasons why: 1) Donald Trump watches an inordinate amount of television for an acting president, maniacally retweeting anything and everything he hears in order to solidify his opinions; and 2) Donald Trump believes everything he says is fact.
Our political sphere is hindered by a commander-in-chief playing the most dangerous game of Telephone in the world. For example, bonehead Gregg Phillips, former Texas Deputy Health and Human Services Commissioner and currently the man behind the mobile app VoteStand, tweeted Donald Trump won the popular vote of the 2016 election after more than 3,000,000 votes were illegally cast for Hillary Clinton. In spite of there being no evidence to support this claim, Donald Trump, eager to propel his own conspiracy theories, tweeted his appreciation to Mr. Phillips, expressing his enthusiasm to see the results of this elusive study. Others grabbed the baton and the rumor swelled until, finally, supporters of Mr. Trump began preaching Mr. Phillips’ tweet as fact.
On Wednesday, Trump made another erroneous claim about former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who, this week, was forced to resign. Trump insisted Flynn was brought down by illegal leaks to the news media. With, again, no evidence to support his statement, Mr. Trump tweeted: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
I’m sure you’d like to think it stopped there. It didn’t.
Trump tweeted: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!” Followed by: “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign.” Before adding, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia.”
He stopped there, right? No. No, he did not.
Trump went on, saying at a press conference Wednesday morning: “Michael Flynn—General Flynn—is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it, the fake media in many cases. And I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.” At the same press conference, Mr. Trump refused to answer any questions posited by the press, except from two organizations: the right-wing website, Townhall.com, and the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Trump is great at doing one thing: repeating lies so often that many see no other recourse than to believe them.
This is a dangerous time for our media. But they ought not to panic—not yet, at least. News outlets should be in place as a checks and balances medium, strictly designed to report the facts and ask the tough questions. And as soon as people—specifically the president—feel threatened by those questions, The New York Times, Washington Post, The Huffington Post, POLITICO, Reuters, the Associated Press, and the hundreds of other media outlets should feel they're finally getting somewhere. After all, it’s far too dangerous to live in a world where Mr. Trump and his cronies abide by the adage: “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”