The Washington Post's Erik Wemple explained how Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's promise, that if elected president, he would change libel laws to sue media outlets that write negative stories about him is a “threat to American democracy” and a “logical extension” of Trump's attacks on the press.
During a February 26 press conference, Trump announced his intention to fight against unfavorable news coverage, pledging that if elected president, he would “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple pointed out that Trump's plan to attack media law is a “threat to American democracy” that he would definitely carry out given his rhetoric and treatment of reporters during his campaign:
An attack on media law is a logical extension of Trump's rhetoric, not to mention a threat to American democracy. After all, he has displayed a highly undemocratic annoyance with the idea that the media is independent. For months he has been attempting to get the cameras at his rallies to properly pan around the thronged arenas, the better to capture his out-of-control popularity, even when the camera operators' job is to stay on him. He has ridiculed reporter after reporter for reporting the facts of Trump's march through the GOP primaries. Whenever he has been busted out by investigative journalism, he has attacked the institutions that have compiled it.
Though Trump in his remarks issued no specifics -- he never does -- about the shortcomings of existing policy or the exact changes he'd make, he appears to be upset with the degree to which media outlets are protected by longstanding First Amendment law. And protected they are, especially when reporting on people like Donald Trump, the sort of person that libel law sees as “public figures.” Media types can go after public figures with a great deal of aggressiveness because the law of the land sees those in the public eye as inviting scrutiny and thrusting themselves into the glare of accountability.
What's so comical and pathetic about Trump is how, as per usual, he speaks so loudly without knowing anything about the topic. Roll back the tape on one part of his riff: “I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Trump wouldn't need to “open up our libel laws” in order to accomplish this end. As currently laid out, our libel laws enable him to do just that. In fact, the “actual malice” standard discussed above applies almost precisely to those instances when news outlets write “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.”
Read carefully, in other words, Trump's words delivered a thundering endorsement of the status quo in libel jurisprudence. Surely he didn't mean as much -- if elected he would doubtless move ahead with this plan to make it harder for news outlets to call him out. Though for a guy who spends much of his day writing over-the-top slams of other public officials, maybe Trump should give thanks for the First Amendment.
Since announcing his candidacy, Trump has repeatedly attacked reporters that challenged him. In November, Trump was roundly criticized for mocking the disability of a New York Times reporter who helped debunk Trump's claim that “thousands” of Muslim-Americans celebrated in New York City after 9/11. In January, Trump called NBC News correspondent Katy Tur, “Little Katy, third-rate journalist” after she reported on Black Lives Matter protesters at his events. Trump has been criticized by reporters at his events for “overly aggressive” tactics, sequestering reporters until they pledge not to speak to his supporters. And Trump has even removed reporters from events for publishing articles and asking questions unfavorable to him.