What Happens When No One Trusts the Press?
The long-term effects of undermining America's free press has consequences post-Trump.
I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.
This is the 58th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goodbye, Donald Trump. Please go in peace.
Sadly, one of the defining characteristics of the Donald Trump presidency has been its attacks on institutions, including the free and independent press. Many of us in the news media have been desensitized to Trump and his cronies calling us “fake news” or its more malicious counterpart, “the enemy of the people.” While relationships between American presidents and the media have been contentious in the past, none has ever been this openly hostile.
But, bashing the media didn’t begin with Donald Trump and it won’t end with his exit from office. While it’s not unique to Republicans, it’s been a tried and true political strategy for the party since at least the Barry Goldwater campaign, which railed against the “liberal” media in Goldwater’s quest for the presidency.
CNN: Attacking the press for liberal bias is a staple of Republican campaigns—and it all began in 1964 (Nicole Hemmer)
Additionally, the ascent of Fox News in the late 1990s was built on the notion that it was a conservative alternative to everything else, claiming all other news media was liberal. The Republican Party became Foxified and, as the network hardened in its ways, so did the party.
While the GOP set the stage for a candidate like Donald Trump, I doubt they could’ve imagined that Trump himself would mount a serious run, get nominated and win. But he did. And he built his success in large part by demeaning everyone around him that didn’t stroke his ego. As journalists, we are tasked with reporting and analyzing, not praising any politician as a demigod. And presidents of both parties have, for the most part, respected the careful and tenuous balance between the White House and the press corps. Trump threw that out the window.
But his norm-breaking didn’t stop at undermining the press. Trump attacked the the intelligence community, depleted the diplomatic corps, isolated us from our allies, befriended autocrats, attempted to blackmail political opponents, interfered with “independent” government agencies, ignored the assassination of a journalist living in America, withdrew from longstanding international commitments, pushed bunk science in the face of a deadly pandemic, refused to denounce white supremacists, threatened whistleblowers, fired inspectors general, put a partisan propagandist in charge of our state-run media, unleashed the National Guard against peaceful protesters, and regularly employed racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in his rhetoric, politics and policies.
In the beginning of the Trump presidency, people often remarked, “This is not normal.” It got old and overused, but it’s still true. None of this was normal. And it may not return to normal any time soon.
Trump’s malice is aimed at the very core of American democracy. His attacks around the election have centered on the very forces that can prevent him from sticking around indefinitely: the postal service, mail-in ballots, state and county election officials, and, of course, the press. “Trump is attempting a coup in plain sight,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote this week amid the president’s bogus claims that he won the election. (He did not.) “That this coup probably will not work — that it is being carried out farcically, erratically, ineffectively — does not mean it is not happening, or that it will not have consequences,” Klein wrote.
Vox: Trump is attempting a coup in plain sight (Ezra Klein)
I think this is an important point: The American press takes American democracy for granted. Thankfully, we have not lived in an America where doing journalism is a real act of resistance, where it’s brave, where it’s truly dangerous. We don’t live in a country where journalists end up dead in back alleys, where our cars explode suddenly, or where we’re poisoned just for doing our jobs.
We take the peaceful transition of power for granted. But, we cannot do that any longer. The peaceful transition of power is a norm and Trump has no interest in norms. Barton Gellman has led by example, writing a pair of articles for The Atlantic that, if all goes well, will seem like silly speculative fiction when we reread them in the Biden era.
The Atlantic: The Election That Could Break America & How Trump Could Attempt a Coup (Barton Gellman)
But, even if we avoid this worst case scenario—Trump concedes and peacefully transitions power to President-elect Joe Biden—we need to reckon with what Trump has done. He has sought to further undermine confidence in the press, which was already frayed, and degraded every other check and balance placed upon him. And that didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it was a long time coming.
And it could happen again. If we don’t find a way to mend the relationship between the American people and the press, what is the point of our work? How do you hold the powerful to account when much of the population views politics as a game and not as a way to govern?
If we didn’t realize this before Trump, we each need to realize one thing: the American experiment is incredibly fragile. Our democracy is not a given.
If you would like to donate to keep Pressing going, you may do so through a “paid subscription” below. Pressing is a free newsletter, but any contributions allow me to keep producing this newsletter for everyone each week.
What Else Is New?
Adweek: Why 2020 Was the Twitter Election (Scott Nover)
CNN: Biden aide: The president-elect knows the media's job is to 'hold him accountable' (Brian Stelter)
Foreign Policy: Attacks on the Press Track a Democratic Backslide (Sushma Raman)
The Guardian: Concern over French bill that cracks down on photos identifying police (Kim Willsher)
The New York Times: Gene Mater, Champion of Press Freedom, Dies at 93 (Richard Sandomir)
The New York Times: As Hong Kong Law Goes After ‘Black Sheep,’ Fear Clouds Universities (Vivian Wang)
The New York Times: TV Journalist Is Arrested as Assaults on Press Freedom Rise in India (Sameer Yasir)
Press Gazette: Study reveals press freedom falling off the news agenda despite worsening global picture (Charlotte Tobitt)
RCFP: The next legal battle (or three) over location tracking (Grayson Clay)
Rest of World: The Journalist vs. Facebook (Peter Guest)
Voice of America: Vietnam Seeks to Further Limit Press (An Hai)
The Washington Post: Facial recognition used to identify Lafayette Square protester accused of assault (Justin Jouvenal and Spencer S. Hsu)
The Washington Post: As Trump began floating baseless claims of election fraud, television networks cut away (Jeremy Barr)
The Washington Post: Biden’s victory seemed clear for more than a day. So why did the media hold off on calling it? (Paul Farhi and Elahe Izadi)
Columns and Opinions
The Los Angeles Times: Democracies around the world are under threat. Ours is no exception (Michiko Kakutani)
The New York Times: It’s the End of an Era for the Media, No Matter Who Wins the Election (Ben Smith)
The Washington Post: Another Trump term could be a fatal blow to press freedom (Jason Rezaian)
The Washington Post: Four years too late, the TV establishment puts Trump on mute (Erik Wemple)
The Washington Post: The media never fully learned how to cover Trump. But they still might have saved democracy. (Margaret Sullivan)
Thanks for reading Pressing today and always. Like what you read and want to support me? Consider donating via a paid subscription here. I’ll see you next Tuesday! Send tips and feedback to email@example.com.