Donald Trump has assailed the media many times since he became president in January. He labeled The New York Times, a publicly traded company in the midst of a subscription resurgence, “failing,” threatened to pull NBC’s license, and has referred to stories he deems critical or unfair as “fake news.”
Criticism of the media isn’t new—nor is criticism of the media by an American president. Barack Obama famously feuded with Fox News and other conservative media outlets, in addition to initiating more prosecutions against journalists and whistleblowers; George W. Bush famously distrusted the press; and Bill Clinton’s testy relationship with the media has been well-chronicled since the 1980s. What is now new, however, is the frequency with which this American president attacks the press—and how his words are being used by strongmen and authoritarians around the world to justify their own actions. While in the past, the U.S. might have criticized such words, Trump’s administration has made clear its desire to avoid lecturing other countries. But authoritarians are learning from the U.S. example now in ways the American-values-promoters of yesteryear would not approve of: Dictators are now describing the press in words so similar to how the U.S. president does that it’s sometimes difficult to tell them critiques apart.
Here are some examples:
Quote: “You can forge anything these days. We are living in a fake-news era.”
Who said it: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Context: An Amnesty International report in February detailed extrajudicial killings by Assad’s regime at the Seydnaya Prison between 2011 and 2015. As many as 13,000 people were killed, the human-rights group said. Assad’s remarks to Yahoo News also included criticism of the FBI’s authentication of photographs used in the Amnesty report. “If the FBI say something, it’s not evidence for anyone,” he said, “especially for us.” Trump, too, has dismissed the FBI’s work, in that case when it came to determining Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.