Trump Wants to Censor the Media

The president’s call for a Senate investigation into news outlets for publishing unflattering stories about him is an attack on freedom of the press.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Frustrated with a set of damning reports about his relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—including the nugget that Tillerson called him a “moron” (perhaps with an R-rated modifier)—the president offered a new suggestion on Twitter Thursday morning: Why not explore government censorship of the press?

Trump had been relatively quiet on Twitter for a few days, following the massacre in Las Vegas and his trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, but the Tillerson stories on Wednesday set off a new tirade of tweets against the press. Most of them are the standard “Fake news!” variety—never mind that there have been stories of Trump-Tillerson tension for months, and that multiple outlets have confirmed the “moron” anecdote—but the president is calling for something different here. He is suggesting that the Senate bring its investigative powers to bear on news reports that are, from all indications save Tillerson’s non-denial denial, entirely accurate.

The idea of an Intelligence Committee investigation seems to spring from an already-existing inquiry by the committee into Russian interference in the election, which has in recent weeks focused intensely on the role of Facebook as a medium for divisive advertisements and events designed to influence American politics, allegedly placed by Russian actors. Trump has said that this investigation, like others into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of his victory.

In short, Trump is expressing an interest in censoring the American free press. As usual, it’s hard to tell how serious Trump is—viewed amid the barrage of fake-news tweets, it may just be an off-the-cuff riff. (Earlier this week, Trump said in an interview that Puerto Rico’s debt would need to be erased, leading the White House to say he didn’t really mean it.) If made in that spirit, it’s striking that the president casually and carelessly suggests infringing on constitutional protections.

Yet this is not the first time he has worked to undermine the free press. He has attacked reporters personally and en masse; he has incited crowds against them; he has accused reporters (with no evidence, of course) of sedition; and he has said he wants to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets for misstatements. Less consequentially, though for some reason to greater attention, he has passed along memes of cartoonish violence against the outlets.

Trump’s focus on a few outlets, especially NBC News, CNN, and The New York Times, suggests he is interested not in across-the-board censorship so much as targeted persecution of those organizations that he feels are making his life difficult. The good news is there’s no reason at this moment to believe that the Senate Intelligence Committee would take up Trump’s invitation, but it’s hard to simply dismiss it. Trump has successfully pushed for bogus inquiries in the past, as when he accused President Obama of “wiretapping” him and then demanded his evidence-free allegation be investigated. The Justice Department concluded there was no evidence to support the claim.

Trump is likely the most media-obsessed president in American history, and has long recognized and exploited its power to assist him, but he cleverly latched onto a decades-long conservative campaign to undermine the press. (Some of the same conservative commentators and outlets who helped drive that campaign watched with dismay as Trump capitalized on distrust to upend longstanding norms.) But Trump’s frustration with the press has grown, and his bitterness now seems genuine. While the media’s approval ratings have long been lodged in the basement, a Reuters poll this week showed that as confidence in the administration has sunk, confidence in the press has risen—jumping from 39 to 48 percent since November.

Even so, freedom of the press is in a beleaguered state. Not only have traditional economic models crumbled, but public support for the underlying venture is low.  In March, just a third of respondents told Gallup they trust the press, and six in 10 Americans said the press was biased. In April, a plurality of respondents told YouGov that the media abuse First Amendment rights. Forty percent of Millennials support censorship of hate speech. And three-quarters of people in a Newseum poll said that “fake news” should not be protected by the First Amendment. Meanwhile, courts—responding to lawsuits funded by Trump’s friend and backer Peter Thiel—have proven newly willing to punish outlets for publishing even accurate information.

The problem is that it’s much easier to say that fake news shouldn’t be allowed than to actually do something about it. (This is a recurring theme with Trump’s policy ideas.) Any effort to do so almost inevitably ends with the government singling out specific outlets, and from there it’s a slippery slope to wider-ranging censorship. How would an investigation proceed? It would require, for example, large-scale subpoenas to journalists to figure out who their sources were. The targets of such requests would, in most cases, refuse, even if imprisoned.

Prosecutors have on occasion demanded that reporters divulge anonymous sources, and reporters have often refused, but those requests have been narrowly focused on specific cases, in part because the U.S. justice system has recognized that broader use would chill press freedom. (Many journalists would argue strongly that the narrow requests do too.)

This slippery slope is why  Trump’s conflation of actual, fictitious news designed to mislead with reporting he simply doesn’t like is clever, and it is the genius of the Russian propaganda operation designed to influence U.S. politics. While the full scope of Russian efforts remains unclear—both the Senate Intelligence Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating that question—outlets like RT and Sputnik are effective because they take advantage of the U.S. system in order to undermine it. These outlets present themselves as reputable news organizations—sometimes with a slant, but what news organization doesn’t have one?—and take advantage of protections on the free press.

Neither the misinformation industry, whether for propaganda or profit, nor Russian efforts to meddle end with news outlets. They also extend to Facebook advertisements and events. The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Facebook, which raises its own questions about government interference in the press, because although Facebook says it is not a media outlet, the contemporary press is highly dependent on Facebook as a distribution method.

Spurious news organizations like those sponsored by the Russian government serve to set a trap: If allowed to operate, these outlets can serve as tools of propaganda. And when investigated, it creates the awkward impression that press freedom is either false or selective—which, of course, serves a propaganda purpose as well. What is unusual is that in this case, the president of the United States is either wittingly or unwittingly assisting.