The Free Press as “Enemy of the People”

by Project Censored

By Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth for Project Censored

Hostility toward the press is nothing new in the US. Historically, President Richard Nixon’s administration made a policy of demonizing the media, especially as it grappled with declining public support for the war in Vietnam and the 1970 Kent State massacre. Then-vice president Spiro Agnew, with infamous alliteration penned by speechwriter William Safire, referred to the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism” who “formed their own 4-H club—the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’” This preceded Nixon’s 1971 attack on the New York Times when his administration attempted to suppress the release of the Pentagon Papers and silence whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—a case Nixon took to the Supreme Court and lost. It’s where the myth of a “liberal media” began in recent history as a weaponized term that eventually morphed into the epithet “fake news.”

While this hostility toward the press runs in cycles, it has again been increasing in the new millennium as whistleblower protections and respect for journalists have measurably decreased since the times of Ellsberg. In fact, the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous US administrations combined, while Donald Trump pursues a full throttle attack on the press almost daily, making them a staple of both his campaign and his presidency. 

Throughout his campaign, Trump treated the press as “a prop, or a punching bag,” leading Emily Bazelon to predict in a November 2016, New York Times Magazine article that “[t]he new president will be a man who constantly accuses the media of getting things wrong but routinely misrepresents and twists facts himself.” Trump urged his supporters at rallies to attack the press as throngs chanted, “Lock them up!” As Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of the Poynter Institute observed, “His attitude worsened when he won. Trump turned ‘fake news’ from a factual description of online hoaxes into a weaponized epithet against any critic.” One that he continues to use in his routine attacks on the press and other perceived political enemies.

It’s further worth recalling that in one of his first post-inauguration appearances, Trump gave a speech from CIA headquarters stating that he was engaged in “a running war with the media” and that journalists were “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” At a Republican policy retreat in late January he said there was “nothing fair about the media. Nothing.” At the same time, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, former CEO of the right-wing news site Breitbart, said the media, which he referred to as “the opposition party,” had been “humiliated” by the election’s outcome. Bannon quipped, “The media should be embarrassed . . . and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile.”  

Trump surrogates used the attack on the press as a key talking point throughout his first hundred days in office. In February 2017, during a series of public Tweets, Trump wrote, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” The term “enemy of the people” carries significant connotations, having been used historically by despots against journalists and dissidents, sometimes to justify ethnic cleansing. In Nazi Germany, Lügenpresse (or “lying press”) was the weaponized phrase used for attacking journalists and other critics. Trump has used its English counterpart proudly and repeatedly in his own war on the news media. 

Trump’s systemic hostility toward the press has set an example others have eagerly followed. Montana’s 2017 special election for the House of Representatives saw GOP candidate Greg Gianforte confront Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after he refused to answer questions at a campaign event. Gianforte verbally abused Jacobs before body-slamming him to the ground. Said Jacobs, “Mr. Gianforte’s response was to slam me to the floor and start punching me… thrust[ing] me into a national spotlight I did not seek or desire.” Despite this assault on a journalist, Gianforte went on to win, with many of his supporters cheering his actions as if they were part of a professional wresting melodrama rather than a congressional election. Gianforte plead guilty to misdemeanor assault charges, apologized, and was sentenced to forty hours of community service and twenty hours of anger management classes.  

Numerous free press organizations protested Gianforte’s actions. Gabe Rottman of PEN America said, “A member of the House hasn’t physically assaulted someone this severely since the Civil War, and we are unaware of any historical precedent for a lawmaker beating up a reporter . . . Amid a climate of escalating hostility toward the press it is essential for the House to send a clear message to its members and to the nation that hostile treatment of the press will not be tolerated or ignored.”  Nevertheless, last month, Gianforte was sworn in as the sole representative to the House from the state of Montana.

It is clear Trump and his supporters don’t care about journalism, a free press, or for that matter, an informed populace in a democratic republic. These latest histrionics illustrate that it’s long past time to insist on having a robust and critical free press, one that fights back not with snide antics or playground politics, but with real investigative reporting that holds the Trump administration accountable for its policies and actions.

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Mickey Huff is president of the Media Freedom Foundation, and director of Project Censored, the 41-year media watchdog organization; Andy Lee Roth is the associate director of Project Censored. This article is adapted from the Seven Stories Press publication, Censored 2018: Press Freedoms in a “Post-Truth” World, released October 2017.

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