Donald Trump’s targeting of the press may have advanced his candidacy. But continuing the hostility would wound his presidency and, by extension, the nation itself.
Any press-president relationship is contentious, and by design: The Fourth Estate is first and foremost a necessary check for a functioning democracy. And despite the daily denigration Trump heaped on media members during his historic run for the White House, the Washington press corps won’t be complacent or compliant. The opposite is likely, in fact. An aggressive press awaits, just as it would have had Hillary Clinton won the White House.
President-elect Trump may be tempted to revert to form, singling out reporters like NBC’s Katy Tur, or discrediting the press in general with words like “dishonest” or “scum.” Certainly some supporters might revel in such a continued institutional diminution. But doing so risks an exhausting slog that would drain a fledgling administration. And longer term, insisting the news media cannot be believed would backfire, making it more difficult to convey objectives, build support for specific initiatives and report results to an anxious electorate expecting progress.
There’s even more at stake, however. The U.S. has historically been a beacon of press freedom. This is always important, but especially crucial at a time when journalists are jeopardized worldwide. Just this year there have been 69 journalist-related killings and 338 journalists jailed, according to media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders. And most killings are committed with impunity, according to an analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which reports 1,217 journalists have been slain since 1992.
The carnage and incarceration weaken democracies and give ruling strongmen more power. Ending these abuses is in America’s best interests. The U.S. needs to lead news media freedom and security efforts within international institutions like the United Nations and directly through bilateral diplomacy. At times the president must press for release of reporters imperiled by state and nonstate actors alike, such as reporter Roxana Saberi, the Concordia College graduate who was held captive by Iran in 2009.
It’s bracing that both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists felt compelled to issue statements regarding the president-elect.
Sandra Mims Rose, CPJ’s chair, began a stark statement with these words: “Guaranteeing the free flow of information to citizens through a robust, independent press is essential to American democracy. For more than 200 years this founding principle has protected journalists in the United States and inspired those around the world, including brave journalists facing violence, censorship, and government repression. Donald Trump, through his words and actions as a candidate for president of the United States, has consistently betrayed First Amendment values. On Oct. 6, CPJ’s board of directors passed a resolution declaring Trump an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists and to CPJ’s ability to advocate for press freedom around the world.”
CPJ, a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse candidates, has been consistent in pressing presidents to uphold First Amendment values. That includes a critical 2013 report on President Obama’s press freedom record. Reporters Without Borders is similarly nonpartisan. It issued a postelection statement itemizing some of Trump’s legal threats against the press, his revocation of press credentials, and instances in which he “insulted or bullied members of the press,” prompting Christophe Deloire, the organization’s secretary-general, to say in a statement: “Trump’s actions to restrict the free press during his presidential campaign have sent a worrying signal about his intentions in the presidency. As president, we call on him to ensure respect for press freedom and free speech under the First Amendment. The press must be able to carry out its work without fear of reprisal from a hostile White House.”
Restrictions on the press during the presidential campaign “are part of an overall alarming trend of curtailing press freedom in the United States,” the statement concluded, adding that since 2013, America’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index had fallen 14 points, dropping the U.S. to just 41st out of 180 countries.
Such slippage should trouble Trump — and all Americans. The U.S. should strive to top the Press Freedom Index and lead abroad through the example of our democracy at home.
On Jan. 20, 2017, President Trump will hold the most powerful position in the world. While acting on his pledge to “make America great again,” he should reflect the fact that a free press has been integral to the country’s great history and is just as essential for its future.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.