Here is a short list of the ways President Donald Trump has attacked the media recently:
- The day after his inauguration, he told a crowd of intelligence officers he has “a running war with the media,” whose members he called “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” He then accused news outlets of lying about the size of his inauguration crowds.
- During inauguration week, the Trump International Hotel in Washington banned journalists from the building—Trump’s ownership of which is a controversy in its own right.
- After going a record-long span without press conferences, he used his first to berate a CNN reporter, calling him “fake news,” and Buzzfeed News, dismissing it as a “failing pile of garbage” for its release of an unverified dossier containing damaging allegations about Trump.
- His transition team said it was considering a plan to evict the media from their traditional roost in the White House press room. “They are the opposition party,” a senior official told Esquire. “I want ‘em out of the building.”
- He used one of his first post-election meetings with reporters and editors, held in Trump Tower in November, to insult their “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage.
- Fresh off an electoral victory, he used his Twitter platform to lambast The New York Times and the media in general for allegedly inciting protests.
- He broke protocol by traveling, on multiple occasions, without the customary pool of reporters.
This is just since November.
Recently, Kirk Hawkins, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, studied 107 current and former leaders in 73 countries, between 2000 and today, that he and his co-authors deemed to be “populists”—charismatic leaders who portrayed the world as a clash between a downtrodden “people” and a conspiring elite. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi all fall into this group. Bernie Sanders, who isn’t a national leader and wasn’t included in the study, is a “left populist” according to Hawkins; Trump, who just took office and also wasn’t included, is a “right populist.” In the study, which is still under review, Hawkins found that the longer leaders like these are in office, the more freedom of the press declines, as measured by Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press score.
So why does this happen, and what does the press do in chilly environments like these?
Hawkins said that populist leaders view their course as so true and correct that scrutiny—the media’s perpetual role—gets painted as opposition. “[Populism] thinks there’s going to be just one right way of doing things,” Hawkins explained. “The will of the people should be unified and harmonious. Once dissent starts happening and alternative voices start coming along ... it’s easy for a polarizing dynamic to come in: ‘You must be part of the evil elite.’”
The effects vary by degree from country to country, Hawkins said, and by strategy. In Venezuela, armed gangs loyal to the government ordered reporters out of a neighborhood they controlled at gunpoint, and a TV news executive was arrested on charges of “offending the president.” Other populist leaders fine journalists; many Turkish reporters have been outright jailed.
Of course, the American press doesn’t currently face these threats. America’s institutions are stronger than those of Turkey or Venezuela; its free-press norms have not yet been corroded by the steady drip of hateful tweets. It’s still considered strange in the U.S. when the president calls a news outlet garbage. Yet he has done so, and his inaugural promise to transfer power from Washington and give it back “to you, the American people,” spells out his populist bent. Should he, like other populists, want to shun scrutiny, “there is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House,” as Masha Gessen wrote in The New York Review of Books in November.
The experience of various journalists who have worked in unfriendly media environments underscores both how America differs, and the typical tactics with which leaders hostile to the media can skirt investigation. A journalist who works in Russia currently, Darya Luganskaya, lamented that there’s no Freedom of Information Act there. U.S. journalists, she said, should defend the American law, which requires executive-branch agencies to disclose many types of documents upon request. Though some Russian officials respond to her phone calls or app-based messages, getting an official comment from the FSB security service requires retro methods. “The only way to approach them is a fax, to which they should respond within 30 days (which never happened to me as far as I remember),” she said via email.
Like many other journalists working in restrictive environments, Luganskaya interacts with her sources on a secure messaging app, Telegram. Apps like Telegram and Signal encrypt the data they transmit, so they can’t turn it over under a court order. As my colleague Kaveh Waddell has noted, this isn’t a bad idea for American journalists, either, especially those concerned about protecting their anonymous sources.
Kecheng Fang, who worked as a political reporter for the Chinese Southern Weekly newspaper from 2010 to 2013, also said a fax, in his case one bearing an official seal, was the only channel through which to ask questions of policy-makers—and usually, the request was denied. Instead, he tried to find sources outside the government, rely on datasets, or establish personal connections with overworked, spooked ministers. “Most government officials in China are very stressed out,” he said. “If you really have empathy or compassion with them, and you know what the problem is, they might be willing to talk to you.”
Damian Pachter, a former journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald, was forced to flee to Israel last year after he broke the news of the suspicious death of a prosecutor. Pachter sensed he was being followed by a government security official, so he flew to Tel Aviv by way of Uruguay and Spain. Soon after, a Twitter account of the former Argentine president’s residence, the Casa Rosada, posted his flight details. Pachter said such a breach would be hard to imagine in the U.S. under Trump. Colleagues of his, he said, were also followed and had their phones tapped; at her few press conferences, former president Cristina Kirchner generally only took questions from loyal journalists.
“You just get habituated to that,” he said. He’d try to meet people in person instead.
Poland, too, saw a crackdown on the press after the right-wing Law and Justice party, one of the continent’s most conservative, came to power in 2015. It tightened the government’s grip on public news services, including the right to hire and fire journalists. An undersecretary at the culture ministry told Deutsche Welle that he hopes the “national mission” will be the focus of programming going forward. “They are doing pure propaganda, Putin-style,” said Bartosz Wieliński, a journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal daily based in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, non-public outlets like his “are not allowed to fly together with the president, prime minister, and other members of the cabinet,” he said. “They are simply not picking up calls from our editorial office or not responding to emails. They are simply attacking us, during the parliamentary debates, during their interviews with other journalists, during their speeches, saying that we’re evil. They try to create a bad image of us, try to convince the population that we’re lying. And they have forbidden state-owned companies to put any advertisements in our journal.”
He said that although the U.S. does not have these problems now, “when I see how Donald Trump is addressing CNN coverage, that would be a problem. I would be afraid.”
Cinar Kiper, an Atlantic contributor, was working as a reporter in Istanbul before his newspaper was seized, he said, by a government trustee. Now, he and many other journalists find themselves chronically underemployed. VPNs—private internet networks that are harder to surveil—have become commonplace for journalists there, he said.
“One thing Turkish journalists find ourselves doing is tempering what we write—auto-censorship—out of fear,” he said. “Not just of the government, but also of its supporters, who have no issue taking matters into their own hands.”
Kiper sees limits to how much Trump can realistically gut the press, but he does spot similarities between Trump’s and Turkish President Erdogan’s attitudes toward the media. “[Trump] might not be able to shut down The New York Times, but if he makes the Times untrustworthy for millions of Americans, that’s what he really banks on,” he said.
Perhaps the only silver lining for these reporters has been that desperation breeds creativity. They lean more heavily on non-government sources and dream up innovative types of coverage and new distribution channels, like sending their reports out on Whatsapp. In China, for instance, most of Fang’s stories were heavily redacted by internal censors, under the direction of a “propaganda department.” So he started writing about material that was publicly available, but not widely known, in a column called “Common Sense.” It was a recurring feature meant to elucidate complex policy issues—how the country’s opaque annual political meetings work, for instance—rather than break news.
“If you do not have access to Trump,” Fang said, then “perhaps you can explain the relationship between the Supreme Court and the legislators.”
“Because actually American citizens are not very well-informed, so sometimes what we consider common sense is largely unknown to the general public. This kind of information is fundamental.”