Trump's unprecedented verbal attacks on the media

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 29 physical assaults on journalists so far in 2017.
United States Report, IAPA 73rd General Assembly October 27 to 30, Salt Lake City, Utah

The news media remain on the defensive against President Donald Trump's strong, anti-press rhetoric as he settles into office. In our previous report, we detailed how Trump's unprecedented verbal attacks on the media threatened the future of newsgathering and press freedom. Those attacks, apparently aimed at discrediting the reporting he deems unfavorable, continue unabated. Indeed, the attacks—often delivered via Trump's Twitter account—frequently now promote the use of government intervention to prevent unfavorable coverage. These statements exacerbate an already hostile climate in which journalists are coming under increasing verbal and physical attack across the country.

The Trump Administration has intensified its verbal attacks on the credibility of the news media since our last report. Trump continues to regularly refer to prominent news organizations, particularly CNN, NBC, and the "failing" New York Times, as "fake news"—a term originally meant to define deliberately false, invented stories. Even in the middle of a recent natural disaster—when the public often relies on the news media to provide life-saving information—Trump verbally attacked the press and attempted to undermine its credibility. After news reports about a slow federal response to devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Trump posted on Twitter, "To the people of Puerto Rico: Do not believe the #FakeNews!"

Recent attacks by the Trump Administration seem to encourage direct government interference with a free press. In September, for example, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders advocated that sports network ESPN should fire host Jemele Hill for criticizing Trump on Twitter. It is highly unusual for White House officials to comment on the hiring practices of the news media. In an October post on Twitter, Trump called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate the "Fake News Networks." (The committee is investigating the Trump Campaign's ties to Russia, but the committee chair denied that the investigation would include any news organizations.) Also in October, Trump posted to Twitter, "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?" (The national broadcast networks do not have licenses, and the Federal Communications Commission does not regulate the content, especially the news coverage, of the local broadcast affiliates.) The same day, he told reporters that "it is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write," and the same evening spoke more directly about license revocation, tweeting, "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!"

While it is never easy to show a direct correlation, this climate of anti-press rhetoric by government officials has coincided with an alarming number of physical attacks and threats on journalists. Most prominently, a Montana candidate for Congress "body slammed" a Guardian reporter and broke his glasses. The candidate was charged with misdemeanor assault, but won election to the House of Representatives the next day. Following that incident, a Montana resident told a CNN reporter, "You're lucky someone doesn't pop one of you." Another reporter was shoved against a wall and then ejected from a federal building in Washington, D.C., by security officials for asking a question of a member of the Federal Communications Commission. Many fear the president's statements have contributed to this environment. Indeed, CNN—a frequent target of Trump's condemnations—accused the president of implicitly condoning violence against journalists when he re-tweeted a video clip of himself wrestling a person with a CNN logo superimposed as the head. The IAPA expressed alarm, warning that this and other actions by Trump "might instigate the public to acts of violence against journalists and media outlets."

The Trump Administration's hostile rhetoric about the press also has a trickle-down effect on a state and local level. For example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn have both joked about shooting members of the media. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin regularly uses the "fake news" moniker to attack the news media's credibility, and he recently claimed the state's two major newspapers "don't actually seem to care about" the people. Just a few days later, an unknown person shot out some office windows at one of those newspapers. No one was hurt and no direct connection to Bevin's statements was established, but it left journalists on edge.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of a coalition of journalism organizations including the Reporters Committee, has documented 29 physical assaults on journalists so far in 2017, including by police and protesters. Several reporters have been pepper sprayed or assaulted by police while they were covering protests. Others have been threatened, soaked with water, or assaulted by the protestors the journalists were trying to cover. The Tracker also details the Montana "body slamming" incident, and an instance in which an Alaska state senator slapped a reporter in the state capitol building in reaction to a just-published story about the senator's proposed legislation.

The Tracker also reports that police across the country have arrested 31 reporters while they were doing their jobs. Many of these arrests occurred during incidents in which police arrested large numbers of attendees of unauthorized public protests, and officers frequently ignored the reporters when they identified themselves as journalists. The tally also includes a journalist who was arrested and briefly jailed for shouting questions at Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price as he walked through a public building. Press advocates criticized the arrest as "an affront to press freedom," and charges against the reporter were dropped four months later.

The Trump Administration has frequently made it more difficult for the news media to report on government business. After weeks of flouting the tradition of holding daily, on-camera press briefings at the White House, the briefings returned in late July with Sanders as press secretary. However, journalists still have difficulty gaining access to members of the administration as well as to public records. Reporters covering the Department of Defense, for example, have criticized the department for less access to Defense Secretary James Mattis, including a major reduction in the number of journalists permitted to accompany Mattis on official trips. Officials across the federal government continue to quietly remove publicly available data from government websites, such as information on climate change. The Administration announced it would not release the logs of visitors to the White House, breaking with the practice of the Obama Administration to publicly release the information. In April, the Sunlight Foundation declared that Trump had "established one of the worst records on open government in the first 100 days of an administration in American history."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long opposed a shield law that would protect journalists' sources in leaks cases. Since taking office, he has made it clear that the Department of Justice will be aggressively investigating the disclosure of classified government information to the news media. Sessions announced in August that the Justice Department "has more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last Administration. And we have already charged four people with unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with foreign intelligence officers." At the same time, the attorney general announced a review of Department of Justice guidelines regarding federal prosecutors' subpoenas for the records of journalists. The current guidelines, amended in 2015 with input from a media coalition led by the Reporters Committee, require that most such subpoena requests be approved by the attorney general and that "[t]he government should have made all reasonable attempts to obtain the information from alternative, non-media sources." A News Media Dialogue Group, created by the attorney general at the time when the guidelines were amended, will work with the new Department of Justice leadership on their review of this policy. The review is in its early stages, but the News Media Dialogue Group's goal is to keep the 2015 guidelines unchanged.

The rhetoric from the executive branch—and even some members of Congress—is a worrying trend for press freedom. However, press freedoms are deeply protected in law, and the judicial branch of government serves as a strong check on the other branches' ability to diminish the free press. One prominent recent example of a news media victory in court involves Sarah Palin, a prominent political figure and supporter of Trump. Palin sued The New York Times for defamation over an editorial that linked violent rhetoric with deadly shootings. The suit was quickly dismissed, with powerful language supporting a robust free press. While the increased anti-press rhetoric of prominent politicians presents many practical and physical challenges to journalists, these politicians still face a high legal bar in limiting press freedom.

United States Resolution, IAPA 73rd General Assembly