Mediator: Where Will Trump Stand on Press Freedoms?

2016-11-14 16:42:13

 

Mediator: Where Will Trump Stand on Press Freedoms?

It was mid-June, and relations between Donald J. Trump and the news media had taken another dreadful turn. He had already vowed to change the libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists, and his personal insults were becoming more vicious. (One news correspondent was a “sleaze”; another was “third rate.”)

Most troubling was that he was keeping a blacklist of news organizations he was banning from his rallies, and it was growing.

I called him at the time, to see what this would look like in a Trump administration. Would he deny White House credentials to select reporters and news organizations?

No, he said. “There, I’m taking something away, where I’m representing the nation.”

We can only hope he means it. Because if Mr. Trump keeps up the posture he displayed during the campaign — all-out war footing — the future will hold some very grim days, not just for news reporters but also for the American constitutional system that relies on a free and strong press.

It’s one thing to wage a press war as a candidate, when the most you can do is enforce reporting bans at your rallies, hurl insults and deny interviews and access (all of which are plenty bad).

It’s another thing to do it from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where you have control over what vital government information is made public, and where you have sway over the Justice Department, which under President Obama has shown an overexuberance in investigating journalists and the whistle-blowers who leak to them.

Imagine what somebody with a press vendetta and a dim view of the First Amendment would do with that kind of power.

For their part, American newsrooms are conducting their own reassessments, vowing to do a better job covering the issues that animated his supporters, and acknowledging that Mr. Trump tapped into something in the national mood, the power of which they failed to grasp.

They now know they underestimate him again at their own peril. Yet they also know that the need to continue with probing, unflinching reporting that promotes the truth in the face of whatever comes at them will be great.

In the days immediately after Mr. Trump’s victory, journalists that don’t work at organizations with Breitbart in their names were preparing for potential reporting challenges, the likes of which they have never seen, while lawyers were gaming out possible legal strategies should Mr. Trump move against press freedoms.

Right after his victory Mr. Trump was telegraphing a gentler tone, declaring to The Wall Street Journal, “It’s different now.” Perhaps he was making his long-promised “pivot” to become “more presidential than anybody” save Abraham Lincoln.

But then came the Saturday night release of his “60 Minutes” interview in which he said he would keep his Twitter account so that when any news organization gave him “a bad story,” he would “have a method of fighting back.”

And he didn’t skip a beat on Sunday morning, when he attacked The New York Times with a Twitter post that read, “Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena.’”

The statement was false. The paper said Sunday that postelection cancellations were so substantially outstripped by a surge of new subscriptions that its subscription growth rate in the period that followed Tuesday’s result was four times the growth rate in the same period of last quarter.

In an atmosphere in which it’s not shocking to hear about anti-Semitic literature being sent to the home of a Jewish reporter — the address having been published online by supporters of Mr. Trump — it was hard to see any of this as very presidential, though the definition may be changing.

The funny thing is that few major political figures have had a more codependent and at times friendly relationship with the press than Mr. Trump. Before he stopped doing news briefings in the later phase of the campaign, he was shaping up to be the most accessible major-party nominee in modern history.

But displeasing him could have an intensely personal cost, which the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly vividly recalls in her new book, “Settle for More.”

Ms. Kelly, who became Mr. Trump’s leading television nemesis during the primary campaign, writes about how the candidate, unhappy with a segment she did in July 2015, threatened to unleash “my beautiful Twitter account against you.”

After enduring her tough questioning at the first presidential primary debate, he made good on his Twitter promise, which in turn led to death threats against her, she said. (“I would spend many days of the coming months accompanied by security,” she writes.) It didn’t help, she wrote, that Mr. Trump’s special counsel, Michael Cohen, recirculated a Trump supporter’s tweet that read “we can gut her.”

That was followed by what she took as another threat, from Mr. Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski. As Mr. Lewandowski unsuccessfully lobbied a senior Fox News executive to remove Ms. Kelly from the next Fox debate, she writes, he said he would hate to see her go through such a “rough couple of days” again. (Fox News described the conversation the same way earlier this year.)

Mr. Lewandowski had been the living embodiment of Mr. Trump’s aggressive approach to the press. He was, after all, arrested on charges that he manhandled the former Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields. (Prosecutors in Florida ultimately dropped the charges.)

After a paid stint at CNN, Mr. Lewandowski returned to the Trump fold last week, and could wind up in the administration or at the Republican Party headquarters.

Another member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, the Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, broke new ground this year by financing the “Hulk Hogan” lawsuit against Gawker, which resulted in Gawker’s bankruptcy and sale to Univision.

Though that was technically an invasion-of-privacy case, it was a model for what Mr. Trump has said he wants to see in opening up libel laws.

Most First Amendment lawyers agree that fundamentally changing the libel law would require a reversal of the landmark Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. And while that might seem like a long shot, Laura R. Handman, a First Amendment lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Trump could find ways to “chip away” at it.

First Amendment lawyers are more immediately concerned with potential leak investigations, as well as Freedom of Information Act requests, which can provide the best way to expose government secrets.

Look no farther than the potential attorney general candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as mayor of New York was so allergic to records requests that news organizations and others regularly sued him for basic information.

Success at court was meaningless given that proceedings kept the information out of public view for so long that “he really won,” said George Freeman, who was the assistant general counsel for The New York Times then and is now the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.

I’ve said it before, but the solution will be what it has always been — good, tough reporting.

For all the appropriate discussion about how they missed some key dynamics of the race, mainstream news outlets produced a lot of top-flight journalism. They provided a glimpse into the tax returns Mr. Trump wouldn’t share; showed how he and Mrs. Clinton ran their charities; investigated their family business dealings; and bluntly called out falsehoods, more of which came from Mr. Trump.

The wrong lesson to take from the past year is that reporters should let up in their mission of reporting the truth, wherever it leads.

That’s more important than ever, given how adept Mr. Trump and his allies have proved to be at promoting conspiracy theories that can spread faster than ever through social media.

But if there is one thing we learned this year, it was the wisdom of the old mnemonic device for the spelling of “assume” (makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”). Mr. Trump campaigned through surprise and may well govern through surprise. We’ll know how this thing is going to go only when we know.

Now, where’s my seatbelt?

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