United States


Report to the 75th General Assembly of the IAPA

October 4 – 7, 2019

Coral Gables, Florida

Journalists and news outlets continue to face increasing challenges to their ability to gather and report the news as the country approach the fourth and final year of President Donald J. Trump's first term in office.

The Trump Administration remains openly antagonistic towards members of the news media, fostering an environment of hostility and distrust towards journalists.

He has shown favoritism towards social media personalities and media outlets who support him, while dramatically limiting press access to the White House. At the same time, journalists have faced physical assaults by members of the public, as well as aggressive actions by law enforcement.

The Justice Department's continued efforts to investigate and prosecute "leaks" to members of the news media and its decision to charge Julian Assange for "pure publication" of government secrets, for example, jeopardize journalists' ability to obtain information from confidential sources and their protection for the publication of newsworthy material.

In addition, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion that would restrict press and public access to many business-related government records that had previously been available under the Freedom of Information Act.

President Trump's frequent disparagement of the news media on Twitter, at campaign rallies, and in other public statements, has continued unabated. Through tweets, he frequently calls the press misleading and untrustworthy, deeming it the "Fake News Media," the "LameStream Media," and the "Enemy of the People." He has recently begun calling the news media industry "corrupt" and has declared the press to be his "real opponent" in the upcoming election. In response to recent concerns about the possibility of a financial crisis, Trump accused the press (in conjunction with his political opponents) of attempting to manufacture a recession in spite of strong economic growth. He regularly singles out specific newspapers, television networks, and individual reporters as particularly dishonest or worthy of disdain, a behavior echoed by supporters chanting "CNN sucks" at his reelection campaign rallies. The President's attacks on the news media are bolstered by the efforts of several Administration allies, who perform research with the aim of unearthing and releasing embarrassing information about journalists perceived as critical of Trump, thereby undermining their credibility.

The President hosted a "social media summit" at the White House on July 11, during which he proclaimed that social media has surpassed traditional media in importance and propagated an unsupported claim that online media giants—including Google, Twitter, and Facebook—demonstrate anti-conservative bias, censoring conservative viewpoints and "shadow banning" conservative accounts. Among the summit's 200 invitees were a number of online figures who use their platforms to peddle extremist views. Three Republican members of Congress also appeared at the summit, echoing the President's grievances about social media censorship of conservative ideas.

Journalists continue to face physical attacks and threats from members of the public, as well as wrongful arrests and equipment seizures at the hands of law enforcement.

A reporter was arrested and had his equipment seized while reporting on a climate change demonstration in New York City in July. Police also revoked his press pass, though they returned it along with his equipment one week later. He was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass.

Law enforcement officers shot several journalists with "crowd control" rubber bullets while they were filming and reporting on protests in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in late July.

A Trump supporter threatened a journalist who was filming him with a cell phone at a campaign rally. When the journalist retreated while continuing to film, the Trump supporter approached him and hit his hand, knocking his cell phone to the ground. The rally attendee was arrested as a result of his conduct.

Two reporters were assaulted by members of the public who attempted to prevent them from documenting a physical altercation during a protest in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In August, a business owner in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who had allowed a two-person news team to interview him at work became aggressive with the reporters. When they began questioning him, he told them to leave, then grabbed one reporter's wrist, pushed both reporters out the door, and knocked their camera to the ground.

One television reporter was threatened at gunpoint in Killeen, Texas, in May. Another news crew's van was shot at in Toledo, Ohio, in July, though no one was injured.

An adversarial attitude towards members of the press has even found its way into the world of professional sports. A New York Mets baseball pitcher threatened a sports beat reporter in the locker room after a game on June 23, and the team manager demanded that the reporter be ejected from the locker room.

Setting an alarming precedent for journalists, the Justice Department charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act on May 23. Of these charges, three seek to punish the "pure publication" of government secrets online. While other charges against Assange relate to his role in allegedly facilitating Chelsea Manning's leak of confidential information, the final three charges concern the mere publication of government information. The Espionage Act contains no exceptions for the press or for newsworthy information, making the publication for which Assange was indicted materially indistinguishable from the publication of government secrets by news organizations like The New York Times, regardless of how the material was obtained. The Justice Department's decision to bring these charges puts journalists who report on newsworthy issues involving classified government information at risk of facing criminal charges.

Investigations and arrests of government employees who leak classified information to the press continue. In May, former Air Force intelligence analyst Daniel Everette Hale was charged for leaking confidential information to a reporter.

Actions of both the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the course of an investigation into the leak of a police report to freelance journalist Bryan Carmody prompted an outcry from members of the press and the public. On May 10, the SFPD executed search warrants for Carmody's home and office, seizing electronic devices, notes, and documents. Carmody was detained during the search, and FBI agents reportedly questioned him during his detention. It remains to be seen whether Justice Department protocol—which requires approval from the attorney general before FBI agents can question a journalist concerning newsgathering actions—was followed. Another search warrant issued in connection to that leak investigation, which allowed police to monitor Carmody's phone, was issued pursuant to an application that did not adequately identify Carmody as a member of the press, a violation of California law. The judge who issued the warrant later quashed it and ordered police to destroy evidence obtained as a result of it. The San Francisco Police Chief apologized for the unlawful searches of Carmody's home and office.

The White House continues to provide only minimal access to the press, giving no press briefings since March 11. In a move strongly reminiscent of the White House's decision to strip CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta of his press pass in November 2018, the White House temporarily suspended the press pass of Playboy White House correspondent Brian Karem on August 5. The suspension was purportedly a response to Karem's involvement in a heated exchange with former White House strategist Sebastian Gorka at the July 11th social media summit. The White House claimed Karem had violated vague "decorum" standards that had never been publicly articulated. Karem filed suit challenging the suspension, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in support, arguing that the White House must provide meaningful due process before suspending a journalist's security credentials. A federal district court judge agreed and ordered the White House to immediately reinstate Karem's press pass on September 3, finding that he had demonstrated a violation of his due process rights.

In a June ruling, the United States Supreme Court interpreted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption broadly, to limit public access to government records containing information received by the government from businesses. Under the Court's decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, information that is "customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy" is exempt from public disclosure under FOIA.