Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that one of its journalists, Ayla Albayrak, had been convicted of “engaging in terrorist propaganda” by a Turkish court over Albayrak’s reporting in the Journal on a Kurdish separatist party banned in that nation. The move was condemned by the Journal’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, and press freedom advocates.
Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government has closed down more than 150 media outlets in recent years and imprisoned at least 200 journalists, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom. But the move to prosecute and imprison a reporter for a Western media outlet for terrorism is extremely unusual. When Turkey arrests such reporters, the country can usually expect vigorous protests from the outlet’s home government.
But President Donald Trump did not take to Twitter this morning to condemn Turkey for its outrageous act. Instead, in a move that must have warmed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heart, he offered up his own unrelated authoritarian condemnation of the American press.
The president of the United States, in response to critical reporting about his administration, is calling for federal government reprisals against the outlet that produced that reporting. That the threat seems uninformed does not make it less chilling -- what matters is the president seems eager to use the power of government to restrict critical journalists.
This is what dictators do. First they criticize the media, and then they use the power of the government to crush them.
Trump spent much of his campaign fighting the press and promising to use the presidency to undermine critical reporting. That assault on media is one of the few throughlines to his administration. His penchant for constant lying means that he needs to delegitimize the press, and all other independent sources of information and criticism, in order to maintain power. His apparent hatred of critical coverage is a unifying force for his base, which apparently believes him when he says that the media is deliberately lying to hurt his administration.
There is no pivot coming. This administration’s disdain for the First Amendment is palpable. Things between the press and Trump will not improve, no matter who the White House brings in to try to manage the president.
But as the case of Turkey shows, things can still get much, much worse.
UPDATE: Trump doubled down on his authoritarian tweet in an afternoon press appearance, saying that NBC had propagated “fake news” and claiming it's “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.” He also accused the network of deliberately fabricating sources to damage his administration, saying that journalists “have their sources that don’t exist, in my opinion they don’t exist. They make up the sources.” Trump and his supporters have frequently offered this argument in obvious bad faith, as a way to undermine credible reporting.
UPDATE 2: A coalition of U.S. press advocacy groups has condemned the president's comments as “the latest assault against U.S. press freedoms by the current administation”:
UPDATE 3: In a tweet tonight, Trump expanded his threat to all of network news: