From the December 4 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources:
BRIAN STELTER (HOST): Frank, you wrote this week that turning reporters into enemies -- not just adversaries, but enemies -- is the kind of horrific thing we expect to see in Venezuela or Russia or Cuba, never in the United States of America. Is that where we are? Are we at the point where we have to talk about what it means to have an authoritarian as opposed to a democratic president, treating the press this way?
FRANK SESNO: Well, I'm not prepared to fully brand him an authoritarian yet, but he certainly is sounding that way. But I think that the point that I was making in that piece -- and I think that everybody really needs to think about -- is, the media have had throughout our history an adversarial relationship with the president and people in power. That's our job, that's your job. And the people in power don't like it and they have an adversarial relationship back. That's part of the quid pro quo, that’s what I call, that’s the price of admission to power. The presidents typically win some points back when they throw a little self-deprecating humor their own way. They understand that the media's job is to give them a hard time, to hold power to account, and late-night shows makes fun of him. If Donald Trump is this thin-skinned now, wait until he’s in the office, because it’s not only going to be the American media, it’s going to be media around the world and every political opponent and every comedian out there. So, I think this is a scary thing actually, if you've got somebody who really believes that people who are doing their jobs as adversaries are actually enemies and, not only feels that way himself -- after all, Richard Nixon had an enemies list -- but is engaging and enlisting the public to believe that as well.
STELTER: I talk to international correspondents who will say to you, this is exactly what authoritarians do. This is what strongmen do. This is what happens in authoritarian regimes. I think we need to start using those words on TV, at least to discuss the possibilities before us. What you do in an authoritarian regime is you delegitimize the press. Do you see some of that happening, John, in the weeks since Trump was elected?
JOHN HUEY: Well, I've seen a continuation of what he's been doing since the very beginning. And the last time I spoke to you, I was stressing the concept of a demagogue and the classic techniques of a demagogue. And one of those is, you have to have a scapegoat, you have to create the idea that someone out there is the enemy. And he started out with Mexicans, he moved on to Muslims, and sometime in the middle of the summer, he really started to focus on the media. And you were one of the first people to pick up on that, and also the election rigging. The media was part of the election rigging. So, these are demagogic techniques, and you can look at them very seriously because they do smack of authoritarianism.
HUEY: One other point, quickly, the reason he has settled on the media over the Mexicans and the Muslims is, the media poses a real threat to him. The media are the people who investigate his charitable giving. They're the ones who look at what we can learn about his tax returns. They're the people who cover the fraud trial of Trump University. So it's very much in his interest to discredit the messenger for those messages.
STELTER: Frank, is that what you tell your journalism students, that this is a prime time to become a journalist because there's a lot to investigate?
SESNO: Well, yeah. I tell them it's an important time to become a journalist, even though journalism itself is under siege, even though the media as we know it has so fractured and disaggregated, and that’s going to continue. But we're going to need people who are truth tellers, we’re going to need people who are story tellers, we’re going to need people who are going go out there on all platforms and convey real information, not fake information, not phony information, not distorted information. And I think the point that John was making before is part of also what I tell these students, which is what you're seeing here -- which is really something that everybody, everybody needs to pay attention to -- is, if Donald Trump is trying to inoculate himself in advance, it’s like giving himself a vaccine, to prevent the illness that's going to come when the media turn on his tax returns if they get another leak on it, when they look at some of the business dealings as he's talking to foreign leaders. There are all kinds of stories that you can imagine, that have already been written, some of them, and what he's trying to do here is, as I say, sort of inoculate himself by demonizing media. So, “don't believe anything they say.” So what I'm telling those students and others, and news consumers very importantly, is understand what the media's job is with everybody, and the media need to do their job fairly with everybody, which is to hold them to account.