What Is the Worst-Case Scenario?

April 25, 2017 8:05 AM ET

American journalists grapple with the Trump presidency
By Alan Huffman

The word "unprecedented" is often used to describe Donald Trump's antipathy toward the American media, as it is of many of his other approaches to governance.

Table of Contents
Attacks on the Press book cover

Yet for veteran U.S. journalist Bill Minor, Trump's rhetoric and the threat it poses to the media have a hauntingly familiar ring. Minor, who covered the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, recalls a time when journalists faced harassment from government officials, courts, police and angry crowds, most of whom had little interest in First Amendment protections.

Journalists in Mississippi during the era who refused to toe the line were often put under surveillance or jailed, and hostile paralegal groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the white Citizens Council operated with something close to impunity. Reporters and photographers were frequently threatened with violence, and their publishers faced lawsuits and advertising boycotts, the latter of which drove some outlets out of business.

"It was like we were in a foreign country," Minor recalled recently from his home in Jackson, Mississippi, where he still works as a newspaper columnist at 94.

A member of the crowd holds up a copy of the U.S. Constitution at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Rhode Island, in April 2016. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Though Minor's newspaper's location across the state line insulated him to some degree from local financial pressures, he was spied upon and received death threats, and, while covering an effort to desegregate the bus station in the city of McComb, Miss., witnessed a group of men assaulting a Life magazine photographer and a Time magazine reporter who were walking with him "right there on Main Street."

Such violence against the media occurred across the South, including at the University of Mississippi in 1962, where a French reporter was shot and killed during a riot over the school's integration. No one was ever charged in that crime. Minor recalled that the offices of The Lexington Advertiser - one of the few newspapers in Mississippi that reported on police brutality against black residents -- were bombed, and its owner, Hazel Brannon Smith, was bankrupted by financial losses incurred as a result of an advertising boycott and the expense of defending herself against a series of libel suits, including one filed by the local sheriff.

Given such challenges to journalists during the civil rights era, Minor is deeply concerned by what he sees as "the rebirth of an old animosity against the press," particularly given its potentially far broader scope today. He said journalists cannot afford to be complacent about the potential for crowd violence, government surveillance, expanding libel lawsuits, and Trump's open disregard for traditional First Amendment protections.

U.S. journalists typically look to constitutional protections from such attacks, yet the entire legal structure that protects them and makes the U.S. distinct from the rest of the world emerged only in the last half century. In the tense environment of Mississippi during the civil rights era, "the First Amendment didn't matter," Minor said.

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Blaming the messenger is a longstanding practice in authoritarian states around the world, which many U.S.-based journalist advocacy organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have been instrumental in bringing to light.

Yet Trump has taken anti-media hostility to a level that was previously unseen on a national scale in the U.S., which has long been a beacon of hope for the free press, largely due to its constitutional protections. With Trump in the White House, the U.S. media itself seems far less secure, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour noted during CPJ's annual awards event in November 2016. "I never in a million years thought I would be up here on stage appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home," Amanpour said during her speech accepting CPJ's Burton Benjamin Memorial Award, which is adapted elsewhere in this book.

The longstanding assumption has been that the First Amendment grants U.S. journalists immunity from the sorts of attacks that their more vulnerable colleagues elsewhere suffer. Yet those protections are contingent upon the support for a free media of both the government and the public.

Public animosity toward the U.S. press has been building for years, as illustrated by derisive comments about the "lamestream media" by 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Such criticism includes charges of bias, sensationalism, and failure to challenge falsehoods or distortions. There is evidence to support those criticisms against certain media outlets, though in many cases the charges are levied indiscriminately and without basis in fact.

Social media has further undermined media trust through echo-chamber attacks and the posting of biased or fake news reports, to the point that many Americans consider even independent fact-checking organizations suspect. Some local, state, and federal government agencies have meanwhile used bureaucratic hurdles, delays, and exorbitant fees to make it harder for enterprising journalists to access public records.

The question is how far the backlash against the free press in the U.S. will go.

In their book The Race Beat, journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff noted the degree to which press freedom was restricted throughout the worst-case scenario of the American South during the civil rights era. In addition to the kinds of threats Minor described, they wrote of media blackouts, restricted access to public officials and records, and the dissemination of fake news by civil rights opponents. Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, a now-defunct state agency created to preserve segregation and to monitor opponents and journalists, once paid a black newspaper to plant a fake story that was then picked up by wire services and reported as fact, according to Roberts and Klibanoff.

Minor--on whom the Sovereignty Commission spied, according to records that have since been unsealed--recalled that most of the state's media outlets acquiesced to the powers-that-be, self-censored, or reported with a clear segregationist bias. The few that reported objectively faced sure reprisals.

White supremacist organizations also supported Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, and he cultivated media suspicion and animosity at his rallies, where he corralled and frequently ridiculed journalists whom he described as "disgusting" and "the lowest form of humanity." Crowds at those rallies frequently booed journalists, and in a particularly disturbing image that was widely circulated on social media (and appears on the cover of this book), a supporter wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED," bringing to mind the notorious lynchings of the civil rights period.

As a candidate, Trump also banished journalists that he perceived as unfriendly, at times denying access to reporters for Politico, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post. And he vowed to revisit libel laws to make it easier to sue reporters and media outlets, despite the fact that such laws are established and generally enjoy nonpartisan support, and any effort to change them would require the support of Congress and/or the Supreme Court.

Under the Supreme Court's 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, which grew from a civil-rights era libel case in Alabama and set the precedent for press freedom in the U.S., public officials who sue media organizations or individual reporters for damages must prove actual malice. During the period that the Supreme Court was hearing the case, the Times was already fighting six libel suits totaling more than $6 million and the CBS television network was being sued over its coverage of civil rights crimes in Birmingham, Alabama. Libel lawsuits were then frequently used in the South to try to suppress news coverage, and prior to the higher court ruling, the plaintiffs usually won their cases on the local and state levels.

The media protection that was granted in New York Times v. Sullivan contrasts with media treatment in countries with less stringent libel laws, such as in India and Brazil, where CPJ has found that journalists are often burdened with hefty fines and legal fees that can have a chilling effect on the flow of information. Notably, any effort to weaken legal libel protections for the media in the U.S. could open social media - Trump's preferred medium - to such suits as well. It is not yet known how Trump's influence on the Supreme Court and on lower federal courts could affect future rulings, or whether local and state courts will follow a similar tack. Trump has specifically threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on his tax returns and on allegations by women that they had been groped and kissed by him without their consent, and to file an antitrust lawsuit against Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As evidence to the fear such litigious threats instill, The New York Times reported in October 2016 that the American Bar Association had decided not to release a report it had commissioned which found that Trump was a "libel bully" bent on punishing or silencing his critics, due to "the risk of the A.B.A. being sued by Mr. Trump."

Like so much of his anti-media rhetoric, Trump's litigation threat taps into a trend.

"Juries have never been the media's best friend... but I think we are seeing a trend against the press lately," Sonja R. West, a First Amendment expert at the University of Georgia law school, told The Washington Post on November 5, 2016. "The courts and the public seem to be becoming less likely to give the press the benefit of the doubt and more interested in protecting individuals from what they view as the powerful and sensationalistic media."

The Post reported that "mistrust of the media has been growing for decades, according to public surveys." In 2015, "the percentage of people saying they have 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount' of trust in the news media's accuracy and reliability tied its all-time low in a Gallup survey," according to the article.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported on October 25, 2016, that a North Carolina jury had awarded nearly $6 million in libel verdicts against The Raleigh News & Observer and one of its reporters, which CJR said "seems to provide more evidence that the growing unpopularity of media may translate into less-sympathetic jury pools when news organizations face lawsuits." The case also raised concerns among journalists about the security of their communications with sources and editors should they be called to testify, according to CJR.

Because Trump sometimes makes provocative statements that he later contradicts or even denies having said, many in the media initially expressed hope that he would soften his stance after being elected president, but so far that has not been the case. He has limited media access to his activities, refusing to allow the traditional pool of reporters, photographers and TV crews to accompany him on trips, and he remains the only president to speak out against the protections of the First Amendment. Journalists and media watchers found cold comfort in his cryptic response when asked during a post-election New York Times editorial meeting about his commitment to the First Amendment, and he said, "I think you'll be happy."

All of which raises questions about the long-term security of press freedom in the U.S. and how its potential erosion could affect the media elsewhere in the world.

In an open letter to "Friends in American Journalism" published in the November 22, 2016 CJR, Human Rights Watch deputy director for media Nic Dawes wrote that the perils of a decline in press freedom in the U.S. under Trump would have dire consequences for everyone.

"Ordinarily, it is you who offer the rest of the world advice about press freedom, and the accountability architecture of democratic societies, so I understand that it may be strange to hear it coming back at you, but this will not be the last inversion that the election of Donald Trump delivers," Dawes wrote. Among the potential consequences, according to Dawes, is a decline of the global standard for press freedom. "For all its real and urgent problems," he wrote, "US journalism is still the City on a Hill. The fading of its light will be disastrous not just for Americans, but for all of us."

Historically, U.S. journalists have not felt the need to band together to protect their profession, largely because of those First Amendment protections, Dawes noted. The U.S. Constitution, he wrote, "offers stronger protections than just about any comparable legal framework." But as Minor pointed out, there have been times when the First Amendment provided little protection on the ground because it was disregarded by rogue state governments. When that happened, the only recourse was the federal government, and particularly, federal courts.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is a legal framework whose interpretation has evolved in the last half century as a result of federal court rulings. Before the Supreme Court's media-supportive rulings, journalists in the U.S.--like their counterparts in other countries-had to fight for their right to report the news. Without those legal protections, they would be equally vulnerable.

The First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, the press, and religion and the right to public assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances, was literally a revolutionary idea when it was adopted in 1791 and included in the Bill of Rights. During the American Revolution, in 1776, the Virginia colonial legislature had passed a sort of precursor titled a Declaration of Rights that included this sentence: "The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments." Variations of the declaration were adopted by other colonial legislatures, and in the two and a half centuries since, the First Amendment itself has enjoyed rare nonpartisan support.

In his CJR article, Dawes, a former editor at India's Hindustan Times and at South Africa's Mail & Guardian, wrote that in addition to legal protection, journalists in the U.S. have long enjoyed other benefits denied to many of their international peers. Journalists in the U.S., he wrote, generally have stronger financial backing which, though it is uneven and less secure than it once was, is "orders of magnitude more plentiful than what your counterparts elsewhere have to call upon. You also have reserves of talent, creativity, and commitment far larger than you are given credit for by your critics, and right now by angry, bewildered, and wounded friends."

"But," Dawes added, "one thing you don't have is experience of what to do when things start to get genuinely bad." For example, he wrote, "when Donald Trump ditched his press pool twice within days of being elected, and launched a series of Twitter attacks on the New York Times, a lot of you sounded surprised." In fact, he wrote, Trump wasn't bluffing when he threatened to eviscerate the media. "When he threatened to sue, when he mocked a disabled reporter, when he made clear his affinity for Vladimir Putin and Peter Thiel, he was issuing a warning." Dawes warned that U.S. journalists now need secure encryption of their devices to keep their sources safe "under a regime that has the most sophisticated surveillance capabilities ever imagined" and whose leader has a vindictive history.

Trump has found effective ways to bypass or manipulate the conventional media, largely through social media and friendly outlets such as Breitbart News, but also by making provocative statements that inevitably generate traffic for mainstream outlets. During his campaign, The Washington Post's Callum Borchers reported on preliminary talks about a dedicated Trump cable television channel that would enable him to bypass the conventional media altogether. Borchers described conservative Right Side Broadcasting Network as "the unofficial version of Trump TV since last summer," and noted that the campaign had "teamed up with Right Side to produce pre- and post-debate analysis shows that streamed on Trump's Facebook Page." After Trump chose Breitbart's chair, Stephen Bannon, as his chief White House strategist, some observers raised the specter of a "Trump Pravda," including Politico, which noted that Breitbart "could become the closest thing the United States has ever had to a 'state-run media enterprise,' to quote a phrase by a former Breitbart spokesman."

Though Trump made ample use of free media during the campaign, he has made it clear that he feels no need to accommodate or even tolerate conventional journalism. As a result, in Dawes' view, journalists will have to rely upon their own investigations and sources or on FOIA requests that are also growing increasingly problematic. U.S. journalists, Dawes wrote, can expect their FOIA requests to be further slowed - "walked to death or irrelevance, as they increasingly are in India, and other countries where the first flush of enthusiasm over FOIA legislation has [been] replaced with a deepening chill."

Dawes sees a particular parallel in India during the period after divisive Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014, when "journalists were banned from government offices they had once wandered freely. They were kicked off the presidential plane. Modi granted no interviews to the domestic press for over a year. His ministers and senior officials whispered privately that they had been ordered not to speak to the press." Among Dawes' other warnings is that conventional media outlets will see a financial incentive to "tack to the prevailing wind," which is something Minor recalled happening in Mississippi during the civil rights era, when many news outlets chose to embrace segregationist sentiments due to their own biases or to avoid isolation, reader backlash, or the loss of advertising revenue.

Though Trump's power is more profound, he is hardly alone in his efforts; there are both those existing trends and the potential for trickle-down. On June 13, 2016, the same day that The Washington Post reported Trump had revoked its press credentials to his campaign events, the mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Eric Papenfuse, ordered his spokesperson to cease communications with that city's largest news outlet, The Patriot-News/PennLive, and to bar its reporters from weekly city briefings, following two stories the outlet ran that scrutinized his private business and real estate holdings. In December 2016, during protests over legislation passed by North Carolina's Republican supermajority legislature designed to strip the incoming Democratic governor of some of his powers, police demanded that all journalists, lobbyists, and other members of the public leave the state House gallery, a public space. Among those who were subsequently arrested was Joe Killian, an investigative reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, an outlet of the advocacy group N.C. Justice Center, who was covering the protests. The Huffington Post later quoted Killian saying, "I told them I didn't intend to leave, I was going to stay and continue to report the news. So they arrested me." Killian was charged with second degree trespassing and breaking legislative building rules.

In a similar vein, in Minor's home state, a reporter for the nonpartisan, nonprofit news site Mississippi Today submitted a routine public records request that was followed by the adoption of a legislative rule to exempt all of its contracts from public scrutiny.

The Mississippi Today reporter, Kate Royals, was at the time covering a story about the legislature's hiring of a private firm to revamp the state's controversial educational funding program, and after she filed an official request for the contract, the legislature's House Management Committee passed a rule exempting legislative contracts from the state's open records law. "Even legislators could only view the documents - they couldn't copy them or share them," Royals said. In response, Royals queried the state attorney general, who informed the committee that the rule was illegal, and it was subsequently rescinded. Royals then received a copy of the contract, though the management committee chair informed her by email that the two developments were unrelated. Royals noted that the governor's office also ceased responding to requests for comment from Mississippi Today, following a reporter's pointed question about state poverty statistics in a census report. Such moves have made it more difficult to cover state government, she said. "It's definitely part of a larger attitude here. Obviously, it's not as dramatic as being jailed, but it's the same theme."

Minor recalled that even amid the notably hostile environment of 1960s Mississippi, independent reporters managed to have an impact. As an example, he recalled how an article he wrote about the creation of a state secret police force attracted national attention, after which the effort was abandoned. In another case, a confidential source provided him with a secret state report of local expenditures by race for every school district in the state. Minor's resulting article, which showed that in some districts $100 was budgeted for white students for every $1 budgeted for black students, got the attention of congressmen who used it to push for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But Minor said he's concerned that animosity toward the U.S. media is now broader in scope than during the civil rights era, and that although the federal government then provided a check on the rogue behavior of state officials and a sometimes-hostile public, "it looks like, not anymore."


Alan Huffman is a freelance writer and editor and the author of five nonfiction books, most recently Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer.

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