Journalism Rights Groups Fear Trump’s Threat To Press Freedom

Journalism groups and media reporters warn that a Donald Trump presidency could do serious damage to press freedom.

Throughout his campaign, Trump has launched a series of attacks on the press, ranging from personally attacking reporters to barring critical outlets from covering his events to promising to “open up our libel laws” if he’s elected. Trump also has a long history of suing or threatening to sue critical journalists, and he and a top ally have both invoked the prospect of enacting retribution against media using the government.

Last week, The New York Times cited legal experts explaining how Trump's “blustery attacks on the press, complaints about the judicial system and bold claims of presidential power collectively sketch out a constitutional worldview that shows contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

In interviews with Media Matters, journalists and press freedom experts raised several concerns about how a President Trump would deal with the media. 

“I’m definitely concerned about reporter rights under a Trump presidency,” said Amy McCullough, president of Military Reporters and Editors and news editor of Air Force Magazine. “It’s really nothing new for presidential candidates to criticize the press, but there already have been too many incidents of credentialed members of the media getting arrested or violently thrown to the ground by security at Trump rallies just for doing their jobs. This is unacceptable and sets a dangerous precedent for a Trump presidency. We cannot pick and choose which constitutional amendments we choose to support.”

She added, “The First Amendment gives Trump and his supporters the right to peacefully voice their discontent with the media, but it also protects freedom of the press. Opening up libel laws and threatening to retaliate against news agencies or specific reporters is detrimental to the very ideals our democracy was founded on. Reporters need to be able to ask the tough questions and hold government leaders accountable for their actions without worrying about being thrown in jail or violently attacked.”

George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, agreed.

“If you think about the way he is behaving, he is more likely to be a libel defendant than a plaintiff, he says pretty nasty things about lots of people, either by accident or not,” said Freeman, who also spent 31 years at The New York Times as assistant general counsel. “There will be way too much drama that is inappropriate for a president. He is belittling a reporter, he doesn’t like an article, he may bar a reporter from the next press conference. Too much of this beating up on journalists and attacking them. Too much drama with the press that will not be good for the president or for the press or the country.”

“His goal is to make the press as an institution look bad and belittle it and that is a lose-lose,” he added. “We have no idea how he is actually going to act in office, it is hard to predict. But if he continues to act as he has it is an unfortunate result for anyone.”

Carlos Lauria, a senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “politicians have the right to criticize the media, but … when they insult and use repeated insults and they incite supporters to threaten journalists, the impact on press freedom is real.”

Lauria, whose organization focuses mostly on press freedom in other countries, said Trump’s approach reflects that of many other foreign leaders known for abuse of power and anti-press approaches.

He cited Ecuador President Rafael Correa, who is known for insulting journalists and creating repressive press policies.

“He often calls them ink hit men, liars, mediocre, whatever. That’s bad,” Lauria said in an interview. “In countries where politicians have engaged in this charged rhetoric against the press, there have been consequences.”

Jennifer Royer, a spokesperson for the Society of Professional Journalists, said Trump’s actions raise concerns and indicate he seems “to think journalists, simply because they ask questions, are sticking their noses where they don’t belong. As you know, it is a journalist’s job to ask questions, seek the truth and report it in an effort to keep the public informed. Newsmakers -- especially people in the public spotlight -- should know this and expect it from good journalists.”

Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said, “Just as Mr. Trump is entitled to his opinion, a journalist's job is to ensure the public is made aware of what's within their right to know. The law of our land says it best, and most prominently, for emphasis: ‘Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting ... freedom of the press.’"

Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, said Trump’s anti-press approach is worse than Richard Nixon.

“He has gone beyond Nixon to call for amending the libel laws to make it easier for anyone to sue the press,” Auletta said in an interview. “There’s a lot wrong with the press and worth criticizing, but we have a function in democracy which is to hold people accountable and ask sometimes tough questions. … We are among the least popular institutions, but we are supposed to provide a very valuable role in democracy.”