Feb 26, 2017

Donald Trump’s Unprecedented War on the First Amendment Has Gone Nuclear


Trump and his administration have launched an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and of the press. Are individual Twitter users next?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on our nation’s news media and his attempts to position his Twitter account as the only official “news” outlet of the administration — effectively a state-run media outlet built upon a social media platform. Unfortunately, since I wrote that piece, Trump and his entire administration have effectively tripled-down on their war against the American news media and have taken unprecedented actions to counter it.

If you’ve had a chance to watch any of Sean Spicer’s White House press briefings over the last month (I usually see them on CBSN), you have probably seen at least a couple of instances of Spicer directly arguing with and attacking individual reporters, much the way that Trump did with Katy Tur during the campaign. Spicer has already shown himself to be combative with the news media, and Trump himself continues to decry established media outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times as “fake news” and now, “very fake news” (emphasis mine).










This, of course, is just a small sampling of his tweets directed at delegitimizing the entire media apparatus of this nation. But that last one may be the most alarming: Trump has officially declared the news media “the enemy of the American People.” Let that one sink in just for a minute.

The American news media is effectively our liaison into the workings of our state and federal governments. Whenever reporters include quotes in newspaper or on-line reports, or sit down with officials in one-on-one interviews, they are giving the American people a brief glimpse into that representative’s policy positions, personality, and method of governing. Reporters can communicate with inside sources — often anonymously for fear of reprisals — and find out more of what is going on behind the scenes, which is often how questionable policies and even outright corruption are revealed to the populace. The media also brings crucial information, such as product recalls, threats to public safety, and foreign policy, to the attention of the populace. Their ability to communicate effectively has only grown in the technological age, with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook serving to provide additional ways for people to receive their news and stay informed.

It is perhaps this latter outlet which Trump is trying to monopolize and control. By labeling many media organizations as “fake news” through his Twitter account, Trump seeks not only to control his own narrative, but also the media’s ability to effectively communicate with the American people. Every time Trump mentions a specific organization or reporter in a speech or in a tweet, he is singling that person or entity out for public ridicule, knowing that if they have a public Twitter account (the vast majority do), his supporters and followers will assail them with harassment. This is a way to not only undermine their credibility with the nation, but also an attempt to silence them completely. Individual journalists especially may feel pressured to disconnect from social media due to constant harassment and threats made against them. Donald Trump is both enabling and encouraging such behavior.

So maybe it should come as no surprise that, just a few days ago, the Trump Administration literally blocked a number of news media outlets from participating in a press briefing. Reporters from CNN, The New York Times, Politico, and The Los Angeles Times were all barred from entry. In fact, according to the report, Sean Spicer was literally hand-picking the news outlets he wanted in attendance — a form of “journalistic discrimination.” This is potentially the beginning of a total media blackout of journalistic outlets the administration seeks to impugn. If Trump and his team can ultimately position the American news media as something to be shunned and discredited, his supporters — and potentially a large chunk of the American populace — will be less likely to trust their reporting as the full gamut of their offenses comes to light. This in itself will make it much harder to eliminate the threats his administration’s policies present to America.

The administration has also taken the media to task as of late for its very use of anonymous sources. On CBS’ Face the Nation recently, Reince Priebus declared:

“I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff, put names on a piece of paper and print it. If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed.”






This is disingenuous at best, given the administration’s use of its own anonymous sources in an attempt to confuse the public. Furthermore, there is little question that, for certain types of stories, anonymity is the only way to get the story out there. Sources may be, depending on the story, risking their careers and potentially even their lives by simply speaking to a reporter. Outing the identities of these sources simply puts a target on their backs — which, given how vindictive this entire presidency has become, may be exactly what Trump and Priebus are hoping for, to squelch as much public criticism as possible.

And then earlier tonight, this story popped up on my Twitter feed. Sebastian Gorka, an Islamophobe who was also hired by Steve Bannon to serve as a terrorism advisor to Trump, personally phoned one of his critics with threats of a lawsuit for tweeting his criticism of Gorka. Michael S. Smith II, a regular contributor to discussions on terrorism and how groups like ISIS are using social media to leverage support, has tweeted criticisms of both Trump’s and Gorka’s handling of radical Islam. Gorka apparently expressed hurt feelings at being criticized by someone he’s never met and threatened the lawsuit at the beginning of the conversation:

Smith says he did not begin recording the call until after Gorka allegedly threatened to sue Smith. In an email to Newsweek, Smith said that, “Gorka asserted my tweets about him merited examination by the White House legal counsel. In effect, he was threatening to entangle me in a legal battle for voicing my concerns on Twitter that he does not possess expertise sufficient to assist the president of the United States with formulating and guiding national security policies.”
Which begs the question: Is the Trump Administration now seeking to pursue lawsuits against individual Twitter users who denounce and criticize their policies on the platform? If Gorka does indeed press for charges against Smith, it would certainly set that precedent. It would also send a clear and direct message to every citizen in the United States: Donald Trump is not to be questioned. In fact, Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor, recently said in so many words:

“The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

This should make every American tremble in fear. Welcome to the new reality under Donald Trump.

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