I see numerous pundits, including some on this site, declaring that President Trump is attacking the Freedom of the Press. Various arguments are proffered, generally referring to the claim that CNN, the “Failing New York Times,” and others are “Fake News.” Somehow this is an assault on the right to free speech granted by the founders to newspapers and their modern equivalent, the electronic media.
Give me a break! Hyperventilation like this serves no useful purpose. As Scott Adams notes in “Win Bigly,” Donald Trump is a master persuader. He uses a number of techniques, including hyperbole, to get attention and steer the discussion. One good example is “Build the Wall!”
When Trump talks about the “Wall,” the Left hears “a 30-foot concrete barrier from sea to shining sea.” That was never his intention. He fully recognized that there are places where a “wall” is not practical or needed. In those areas, other forms of barrier or monitoring are sufficient. To deter “wetbacks” from crossing the Rio Grande River, all he has to do is make sure that the channel stays dredged to eight or ten feet for a width of twenty or thirty feet. There won’t be any place for a person on foot to cross. Simple and cheap. Remember the Wollman ice skating rink in Central Park.
Trump’s objective has never been a sea to shining sea concrete wall. But his rhetorical flourishes in that direction fixated his opponents on border security, which has been his intention all along. He doesn’t resort to nerdy arguments that no one will hear. Instead, he talks about crime, victims, and diseases that are a feature of neglected security. His adversaries find themselves arguing about fact-check Pinocchios while keeping the public focused where he wants it. In short, they are tame house cats batting at a shiny object on a string while the President gets things done.
So what has President Trump actually said about freedom of the press? “We want total freedom of the Press. That’s more important to me than anyone would believe.” That certainly doesn’t sound like an assault on the press. And when a search is done for actions against freedom of the press… crickets. Yet many perpetuate the myth that “Donald Trump doesn’t believe in the free press.”
The New York Times claims that Trump’s comments are “damaging American democracy.” But one must ask why the Times, Washington Post, and CNN have published so many stories based on “unnamed sources” that then have to be retracted because they were false. CNN’s Jim Acosta is a particularly biased reporter with little regard for the truth. President Trump has pointed him out on multiple occasions for his false reporting. But he has never taken any action to get Acosta fired. In fact, there are no occasions where the President has pushed for any corporate or legal action against any reporter or news outlet.
The President has suggested that libel laws could be changed.
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Notice carefully that Trump did not then, and has not to date, offered any legislation on this subject. No less a figure than Justice Clarence Thomas has opined that this change would be overdue, since the current standard of “actual malice” toward a public official is “almost impossible” to meet. Thomas’ opinion notes that the original common law of libel has been perverted to a form that gives considerable license to intentional false statements by the press. It even limits remedies for private individuals who would have only had to demonstrate “a false written publication that subjected him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” If this legal standard were to apply as it did until 1964, then Donald Trump would have had dozens of opportunities to sue various news outlets.
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Of course, if the standard were changed back to the original meaning where libels against public figures were more serious than against private persons, Donald Trump would lose much of his freedom to tweet or call out the press as “the enemy of the people.” He would be on the receiving end of the lawsuits. Sauce for the goose…
So one must ask what the President is doing when he points out Jim Acosta and CNN as “Fake News.” Is he attacking freedom of the press at all? I propose that he is not. He is acting as a persuader.
Americans have gradually become accustomed to the fact that certain news outlets lean one way or another. Often they wish for a simple newscast, such as I discovered on One America News while traveling. (I can’t get it at home.) Donald Trump has accelerated our awareness of this bias. Even as a “sophisticated” consumer of news, I was less aware of the radical slant presented by the legacy media: CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, Washington Post, and a few others. I had found them offensive and moved to Fox News, which slants a bit in the opposite direction. This made me unaware of just how far Left those legacy outlets had gone.
The “Fake News Media” is only that subset of the complete media galaxy that repeatedly publishes poorly sourced and often unverified slanders against the President and conservatives. They have uncritically given voice to proven liars such as Jussie Smollett, James Comey, and Andrew McCabe. And rather than featuring positive stories – the economy, rising wages, etc. – they have been over 90% harshly negative, even to the point of admitting that they are “the opposition.”
Donald Trump has not assaulted freedom of the press. All that hyperventilation by those he attacks simply demonstrates that they are full of hot air. And as this drumbeat continues, we hear the President on Twitter.
Fake News is so bad for our Country! https://t.co/ZwA8E0URer
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2019
The persuasion continues. Once again, the President points out that lies by certain outlets are bad for us. The truth of this proposition is so simple that almost no one can miss it. Our very system of government depends on people making decisions based in reality, not falsehoods. That is what America hears. The subliminal message is, “Don’t trust CNN, NYT, etc.” And the more that unsourced and unvetted stories have to be retracted and corrected, the more people believe Donald Trump and disbelieve the Fake News Media.
All of the other statements, such as “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
are mostly noise, simply designed to make us think about how awful the Fake News Media is without sounding like repetitious talking points. The key truth is, they are bad for the country. And in the face of a drumbeat of same-sounding apocalyptic pronouncements about the “evils” of Donald Trump, America is starting to tune out. How else do we explain an approval rating that started at 36% and has now hit 49%, without ever seeing a sustained decline in the two years of his presidency?
Donald Trump truly loves the First Amendment. He loves press freedom. And he loves having CNN, NBC, NYT et. al. as foils. No, he doesn’t love their reporting, but the cavalcade of lies in the legacy media gives him an enormous opportunity to show his opponents to be without substantive ideas of their own. His own accomplishments show through as a light amid the darkness.
As Justice Story said in Dexter v. Spear, 7 F. Cas. 624 (No. 3,867) (CC RI 1825), “The liberty of speech and the liberty of the press do not authorize malicious and injurious defamation.”