President Donald Trump attacked the American media Thursday morning at joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda, a move that some press freedom experts say could empower autocrats abroad to take anti-press steps against journalists in their own countries.
Trump singled out CNN during his remarks Thursday. The network has been a frequent target of the president’s “fake news” attacks after they retracted a story that tied a member of the Trump transition team to an investigation related to Russia. The three journalists who worked on the story resigned.
On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted a video of himself attacking someone in a wrestling ring whose head was replaced with a CNN logo. On Wednesday, CNN’s K-File, led by reporter Andrew Kaczynski, published a story about the identity of the user who originally created the video, who goes by the screenname “HansAssholeSolo,” but withheld the user’s real name because he is a private citizen who issued an extensive apology.
But in the article, CNN reserved “the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” The warning attracted a firestorm of controversy, and Kaczynski is facing an onslaught of harassment.
David Martosko, The Daily Mail’s US political editor who was once dubbed Trump’s “de facto comms director” by The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson, asked Trump about the ongoing controversy Thursday morning.
“I think what CNN did was unfortunate for them. As you know now, they have some pretty serious problems. They have been fake news for a long time. They’ve been covering me in a very dishonest way,” Trump said. “NBC is equally as bad, despite the fact that I made them a fortune with ‘The Apprentice,’ but they forgot that.”
“[W]hat we want to see in the United States is honest, beautiful, free, but honest press. We want to see fair press, I think it’s a very important thing,” Trump said. “We don’t want fake news. And by the way, not everybody is fake news, but we don’t want fake news. Bad thing. Very bad for our country.”
But Trump’s definition of “fair” seems to simply mean “fawning,” while “fake news” has come to mean any outlet that covers Trump skeptically.
In his pursuit of “fair” coverage, Trump has often manipulated the media, taking questions from friendly reporters like Martosko, who was allowed three questions at Wednesday’s press conference, while NBC’s Hallie Jackson was cut off after two.
The White House has also introduced Skype questions during the White House press briefings, saying reporters from outside the beltway should have a chance to ask questions, but as of Wednesday, 72 percent of the Skype questions taken have been from states that voted for Trump in 2016.
Trump’s attacks on the “fake news media” Thursday were not unusual (he has called the mainstream media the “enemy of the American people”), but bashing the American media during a press conference in Poland has incited fears that Trump might inspire autocrats and dictators around the world.
“A trashing of the American press corps and Intel community in Eastern Europe of all places. Could Putin have asked for anything more?” NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted. (Asked if Todd wanted to expand on his thoughts, an NBC spokesperson said, “Chuck’s tweet speaks for itself.”)
A trashing of the American press corps and Intel community in Eastern Europe of all places. Could Putin have asked for anything more?
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) July 6, 2017
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed those comments in another tweet Thursday morning, writing, “Potus disparaging abroad of US media dilutes respect for American democracy & gives license to autocrats to crack down on their own media.”
Potus disparaging abroad of US media dilutes respect for American democracy & gives license to autocrats to crack down on their own media
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) July 6, 2017
By bashing the American media on an international trip to Eastern Europe, Trump was making a “declaration of spiritual alignment, a kind of welcome to an inner circle,” Todd Gitlin, chair of the Ph.D. program at the Columbia University School of Journalism, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
“He’s either joining or aspiring to preside over a sort of [band of] international of illiberals,” Gitlin said.
Some of those illiberals, Gitlin said, are purportedly democratic, like Polish President Andrzej Duda, who Trump joined Thursday morning, and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, while others, like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, don’t even bother with meaningful elections.
“Poland is a chilling case, because the regime came to power by dominating the airwaves,” Gitlin said. “[Trump] opens up the can of worms and declares in no uncertain terms that what he admires about Poland is … ruling through propaganda.”
“It’s definitely sinister,” Gitlin said.
Trump’s arguments about the news media Thursday were similar to many made by Erdoğan in an interview with German outlet ZEIT released Wednesday.
“The German media is pursuing a campaign of denigration against us,” Erdoğan said in the interview. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘independent media’ anywhere in the world. At some level, they are all — whether print or broadcast media — dependent, either ideologically, or they are pursuing their own interests.”
Erdoğan has jailed more journalists than any other world leader.
While Trump’s comments about the media on the international stage may empower autocrats around the world to crack down on the free press, Bill Reader, an associate professor of journalism at Ohio University said there may be a positive reaction at the other end of the political spectrum.
“When you say are Trump’s anti-press statements going to embolden despots and autocrats, the answer is yes, of course, because that’s what they like,” Reader said. “But I think it’s also going to create a lot of opposition.”
That is perhaps the silver lining, as far as Trump’s anti-press rhetoric goes.
“It might make his opponents even more in favor of a free press,” Reader said, pointing to European leaders in particular who he said might want to roll back laws restricting free speech and free press in their countries. “The more he attacks the freedom of press, the freedom of expression… it’s going to embolden those people [who support a free press] much more.”