As we approach the end of President Donald J. Trump's second year in office, the political situation is one of deep discord, as was clear from the recent battle over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump's unprecedented verbal attacks on the news media, have continued to escalate. And, as an IAPA delegation found during a mission to Washington earlier this year, Trump's anti-press rhetoric has exacerbated an already hostile climate in which journalists are facing increasing verbal threats and physical attacks. There are concerns that the impact of this rhetoric is extending beyond the borders of the U.S. and creating a more dangerous environment for journalists abroad. The news media is mourning the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident who disappeared on October 2, during a visit to the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. On October 20, the Saudi government has admitted that Mr. Khashoggi was killed at its Consulate in Istanbul. In addition, the persistent threat of "leak" investigations and prosecutions of sources—as well as related efforts by the government to seize records of journalists' communications—continues to be a paramount concern.
However, press freedoms continue to enjoy robust legal protections, and the judicial branch serves as a check on the other branches' ability to restrict the free press.
The Trump Administration's verbal attacks on the credibility of the news media have continued unabated. Trump continues to regularly refer to prominent news organizations—particularly CNN, NBC, and what he calls the "failing" New York Times—as "fake news," a term originally meant to define deliberately false, invented stories. In June, Trump criticized media coverage of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling it "almost treasonous." He has also continued to personally attack specific journalists; last month Trump lashed out via Twitter at "Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Fake NBC News" and insulted ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega, telling her at a press conference earlier this month: "I know you're not thinking, you never do." In recent months, Trump has also used Twitter to attack the credibility of journalist Bob Woodward, whose recently released, deeply sourced book Fear chronicles Trump's first year in office. Trump has called the book a "scam," a "Joke," "boring," "untrue," and "fiction," and called Woodward a "liar who is like a Dem operative prior to the Midterms." Trump has even gone so far as to tell a crowd at a Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering in Kansas City in July not to "believe the crap that you see from these people. The fake news"; Trump told them "what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening," prompting comparisons to George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.
The President's verbal attacks on the credibility of the news media continue to be echoed by politicians in Congress and at the state and local level. While Trump tends to target national news organizations, politicians at all levels of government are pursuing a similar strategy to delegitimize local publications, as The Associated Press reported in March. For instance, this summer, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California launched a more than two-minute long campaign ad accusing the local Fresno Bee of working "closely with radical left-wing groups to promote numerous fake news stories about me."
Many of the Trump Administration's verbal attacks on the press during the last two years have seemed to contemplate government interference with and/or retaliation against members of the news media. For example, as we reported last year, Trump has tweeted: "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?" National broadcast networks do not have licenses, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not regulate the content of local broadcast affiliates. However, later that same day, Trump tweeted again, this time more directly threatening license revocation: "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!"
Given this backdrop, some have called into question the Trump Administration's motives in opposing a merger deal between AT&T and Time Warner—the parent company of Trump's frequent target in the press, CNN—while favoring a deal between pro-Trump media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media. Trump's Justice Department (DOJ) sued to block the AT&T merger while the FCC initially made moves to aid Sinclair's expansion. Yet even if these actions were politically motivated, the regulatory and legal systems can provide important checks. An independent federal judge ultimately decided the legality of the AT&T merger, approving the deal after a six-week trial, though not permitting discovery into DOJ's motives for suing to stop it. DOJ has now appealed this decision, and the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in September, asking the appellate court to clarify that discovery is available in cases involving threats to press freedom. In July, the FCC cited evidence indicating that Sinclair may have tried to skirt government restrictions on media ownership by divesting certain key stations in name only. The agency then took steps to block the Sinclair merger—despite criticism from Trump—and the deal fell apart.
The unprecedented anti-press rhetoric from Trump and other government officials over the past two years has coincided with an alarming number of physical attacks and threats directed to journalists.
On May 30, Zachary Stoner, a freelance journalist and a popular video blogger, was murdered in Chicago. He published videos to his YouTube channel zacktv1, focused on community life and hip hop artists in Chicago. Stoner, 30, was driving his vehicle in the South Loop neighborhood when unidentified persons traveling in another car shot him in the head and neck. He lost control of his car and crashed into an electric service pole, according to U.S. Freedom Tracker. In October last year he received threats after covering the death of a teenager; though her dead was ultimately ruled an accident, it triggered a number of conspiracy theories disseminated on social media. It is unclear whether Stoner's journalistic work was the motive for his death.
Most recently, on June 29, a shooting at the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, left five people dead: editors Rob Hiaasen (aged 59), Wendi Winters (65) and Gerald Fischman (61), reporter John McNamara (56) and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith (34). Another two persons were injured. The attacker, Jarrod W. Ramos, was reportedly motivated by a 2011 story that had appeared in the Capital Gazette that reported on a case in which Ramos had been accused of harassing a woman on social media. Ramos had previously made threats against the newsroom, and had filed a defamation lawsuit, which was dismissed. Although the shooting does not appear to be inspired by the Trump Administration's hostility to the news media, the devastating shooting sounded an alarm for journalists already concerned for their safety, and prompted news organizations to begin providing security for their reporters at Trump rallies.
And, as mentioned above, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared on October 2, has now been confirmed. The Saudi government has now admitted that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
These deaths have not appeared to slow the president's rhetorical attacks on the press. At a rally earlier this week, Trump praised Montana Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte for physically attacking Ben Jacobs, a Guardian reporter, at a campaign event last year. "Any guy that can do a body slam," Trump said, "he's my guy."
And, as the president has continued to verbally attack the media, reporters have increasingly received threats of physical violence, particularly when they publish stories about Trump or are targeted by him on Twitter. For example, after the Boston Globe announced it would publish an editorial response to political attacks on the media, it began receiving calls from a California man who threatened to kill "every" Globe employee and called the newspaper "the enemy of the people."
Many fear the President's statements—including his repeated characterization of journalists as the "enemy of the people"—have contributed to this environment. Indeed, in 2017, IAPA issued a statement warning that anti-press rhetoric from the President "might instigate the public to acts of violence against journalists and media outlets." And increased threats to the physical safety of journalists was a key finding of the IAPA delegation following its mission to Washington earlier this year.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long opposed a shield law that would protect journalists' sources in "leak" cases and, since taking office, has made it clear that the Department of Justice will aggressively investigate the unauthorized disclosure of government information to the news media. Sessions announced last year that the Justice Department had "more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last Administration" and had "already charged four people with unlawfully disclosing classified material or with concealing contacts with foreign intelligence officers." In August, Reality Winner, a former intelligence contractor, became the first person sentenced under the Espionage Act since President Trump took office. She was sentenced to more than five years in prison—the longest sentence ever imposed in federal court for an authorized release of government information to the media.
On October 18, former FBI agent Terry Albury was sentenced to four years in prison under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified information to the Intercept. The Department of Justice also announced a new leak prosecution earlier this week against a Treasury Department official. Natalie Edwards has been charged with leaking financial records related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to members of the news media.
In June, the public learned that federal law enforcement had seized years of emails and phone records from New York Times journalist Ali Watkins without her knowledge or consent. This seizure occurred not long after she broke a story about former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page's ties to the Kremlin. This is the first known seizure of a reporter's records under the Trump Administration.
The Trump Administration has frequently made it more difficult for the news media to report on government business. Journalists continue to have difficulty gaining access to members of the Trump Administration as well as to public records. Last year, the Sunlight Foundation declared that the Trump Administration had "established one of the worst records on open government in the first 100 days of an administration in American history."
The White House has largely abandoned the tradition of holding daily press briefings. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders held only 13 such briefings in June, July, and August; those briefings, combined, lasted for a total of approximately four hours. When briefings are held, some journalists have noted that they are "basically being used as a campaign event," as the Washington Post's Aaron Blake said of a September press briefing—the first in 19 days—most of which was devoted to a presentation by Kevin Hassett Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, touting the Administration's economic accomplishments.