United States

Report to the Midyear Meeting 2019
March 29 to 31
Cartagena, Colombia
The nation is now more than halfway through President Donald J. Trump's first term in office, and his Administration's hostile relationship with the news media continues unabated. As detailed in the prior reports, Trump's verbal attacks on journalists and news organizations have only increased in intensity during his presidency, despite concerns that such rhetoric exacerbates an already hostile climate for journalists both in the country and abroad. Journalists have been assaulted while doing their jobs, and several news organizations have received threats of violence. Also of concern, the Trump Administration and other public officials have increasingly denied journalists access to newsworthy events, preventing them from reporting first-hand on matters of public concern. In November, the White House suspended CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta's press pass, but it quickly backed down after a court preliminarily found that the decision was likely arbitrary and unconstitutional.

The free press, however, enjoys robust legal protections in the United States. As demonstrated by the court's role in the Acosta press pass incident, the judicial branch continues to serve as a check on the executive branch's ability to restrict the news media.

The Trump Administration continues its frequent verbal attacks on the news media. Trump regularly refers to the press as a whole, or specific news organizations or journalists, as "Fake News," "the Opposition Party," and "the true Enemy of the People." This rhetoric has only increased in intensity over the first two years of his presidency; in all, 11 percent of his tweets between January 2017 and January 2019 were critical of the news media. Just this month, Trump has called the news media "vicious," "the most hostile and corrupt media in the history of American politics," and "the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself." He has also said he was "very proud" to hear Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro use the term "fake news" during a joint news conference at the White House.

The President's verbal attacks on the credibility of the news media also continue to be echoed by politicians in Congress and at the state and local level. Ahead of the congressional elections on November 6, 2018, for example, at least 46 candidates took the President's lead by using the terms "fake news," "fake," "dishonest," "liberal media" or "enemy of the people" in tweets about the press. In just one example at the state level, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin attacked his state's largest newspaper as "pretend[ing] that it's an actual news organization" when the newspaper announced it was boosting its political coverage with a partnership with nonprofit news organization ProPublica.

This anti-press rhetoric coincides with a number of physical attacks and threats directed at journalists and news organizations.

On Oct. 24, the New York headquarters of CNN—one of Trump's primary targets of his criticism on Twitter—was evacuated after staff found a pipe bomb in the building's mailroom. The New York Police Department removed the device, which was similar to ones also mailed to prominent Democratic political figures. Two additional pipe bombs were later found at post offices near CNN's offices in New York and Atlanta. In connection with the attempted bombings, police arrested a Florida man who was living in a van covered with pro-Trump and anti-CNN stickers.

On Feb. 11, BBC News cameraman Don Skeans was physically assaulted while covering a Trump campaign rally in El Paso, Texas. Skeans was working on a raised camera platform when a man wearing a Trump campaign hat approached him from behind and shoved him. The man continued to yell obscenities at journalists while he was restrained and removed. Trump, who briefly paused his speech during the incident, had spoken critically of the media at the event before the attack.

These types of attacks and threats have also affected journalists in local media. On Jan. 12, local television reporter Meaghan Mackey was attacked while broadcasting live on Facebook in Chico, California. Mackey was reporting form the scene of a mass overdose when a woman screamed obscenities at her and knocked her to the ground.

Several newspapers and television stations throughout the United States received hoax bomb threats on Dec. 13. At least 27 news organizations reported receiving an email stating that a bomb placed in their building would explode unless they paid a ransom in bitcoin. The threats turned out to be a hoax, but newsrooms across the country are particularly sensitive to security threats following the June 28, 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, which killed five newspaper employees.

Although many fear the President's criticisms of the news media—including his repeated characterization of journalists as the "enemy of the people"—have contributed to this environment, Trump has not relented. When asked whether he believed his rhetoric encouraged violence, Trump instead blamed journalists for "creating violence by not writing the truth." Indeed, in the days after the attempted bombings of CNN, Trump condemned the incidents but blamed the "Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People," for a "big part of the Anger we see today in our society."

The Trump Administration also ignored Congress' demand that investigate and issue a report on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident. Khashoggi was killed on Oct. 2, during a visit to the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. Despite the U.S. intelligence agency's determination that Saudi Arabia's crown prince ordered Khashoggi's assassination, Trump repeatedly pointed instead to the prince's denials of knowing about the killing. Press freedom groups continue to press for a full investigation and accounting of the murder.

Under new Attorney General William Barr, there are no signs that the Department of Justice will change its aggressive investigation of unauthorized disclosures of government information to the news media. Previous Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced in 2017 that the department had "more than tripled the number of active leak investigations compared to the number pending at the end of the last Administration."

In February, Internal Revenue Service employee John Fry became at least the sixth government employee charged in connection with giving information to reporters since Trump took office. Fry was charged Feb. 4 with disclosing the financial information of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, to a prominent attorney and to the New Yorker. In addition, Treasury Department employee Natalie Edwards was charged in October with leaking financial records to journalists related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. She pleaded not guilty in January. During Edwards' arraignment, a government attorney indicated that additional charges may be filed in the case in the coming months, either against Edwards or others.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Barr was asked whether his Department of Justice would consider jailing a journalist. After a long pause, Barr equivocated, saying he "could conceive of situations where..., as a last resort," a news organization or journalist could be held in contempt of court.

As it was described in the previous report, journalists continue to have difficulty gaining the access needed to report on government business, whether it is access to members of the administration or to public records. Trump said that he directed Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to forego the tradition of holding daily White House press briefings because "the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press." A press briefing by Sanders on March 11 ended the longest period between on-camera briefings in recent history after 42 days. In fact, she has held only five briefings since the last report.

On Nov. 7, the White House briefly suspended the press pass of CNN's Jim Acosta and denied him access to the White House after he attempted to ask a follow-up question of Trump during a heated exchange at a news conference. During the exchange, Trump said Acosta was "a rude, terrible person" who "shouldn't be working for CNN." Sanders first tried to justify the unprecedented suspension by falsely accusing Acosta of aggressive contact with a White House intern, who tried to take the microphone from Acosta. In a rare legal challenge to White House-news media relations, CNN filed a lawsuit on Nov. 13, seeking the reinstatement of Acosta's press pass. In response to that lawsuit, the White House's explanation of the revocation shifted from accusing Acosta of aggressive contact to instead focusing on supposed disruptive behavior during the news conference because he asked follow-up questions. CNN's lawsuit was supported by multiple friend-of-the-court briefs, including one by the Reporters Committee, and a judge quickly ruled that the White House had likely violated Acosta's Fifth Amendments rights by revoking his press pass without due process. The White House soon backed down and reinstated Acosta's pass, but it also instituted new rules of behavior for journalists during news conferences, including limits on follow-up questions.

During a presidential trip to Vietnam, the White House also barred four journalists from covering a dinner between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un on Feb. 27. Sanders said the reporters were banned because of "sensitivities over shouted questions" during earlier meetings. News organizations expressed concerns about such unusual restrictions during presidential travel abroad, particularly when meeting with a leader of a totalitarian state.

The arbitrary exclusion of journalists is not limited to the White House, however. In November, Congressman Steven King barred multiple news organizations from covering his election night party in Iowa. The congressman's son explained that the campaign would not provide credentials to the Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest newspaper, or "any other leftist propaganda media outlet with no concern for reporting the truth." King has received media coverage for his controversial comments about race and immigrants.