Year One: Trump vs The Free Press

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 15-19, 2018

January 20, 2018 marks the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Last week, we documented the Federal Communications Commission’s policy priorities of the past year. This week, we look at President Trump’s war with the press.

Trump vs. The Media

One of the greatest concerns going into the Trump Presidency was how his Administration would interact with the press. Just eight days into the Trump administration, we published The First Casualty is the Truth: Trump's Running War With the Media, which described the first combative week of the President Trump-press relationship. President Trump’s media attacks are not empty rhetoric considering the international influence of his office. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report noted:

[President Trump has] lambasted and threatened the media—including sharp jabs at individual journalists—for challenging his routinely false statements, spoken disdainfully of judges who blocked his decisions, and attacked the professional staff of law enforcement and intelligence agencies…

The president’s behavior stems in part from a frustration with the country’s democratic checks and balances, including the independent courts, a coequal legislative branch, the free press, and an active civil society. These institutions remained fairly resilient in 2017, but the administration’s statements and actions could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious consequences for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s role in the world.

Reporters Without Borders notes that, since becoming president, Donald Trump has not let one week go by without attacking and denigrating journalists. He constantly accuses them of producing “fake news” and doing a poor job.

What follows is a sampling of President Trump’s relentless effort to undermine journalism during his first year in office.

  • January 21, 2017: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer accused members of the media of “deliberately false reporting,” "sowing division about tweets and false narratives," and making it more difficult for President Trump to bring the nation together.

  • January 22, 2017: White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway introduced the concept of “alternative facts.” Conway went on to say her interviewer was trying to get people to hear that “they can't trust our press secretary. I think that it is a very dangerous statement to make.” Asked about reporters in some newspapers calling the President a liar, she answered, "I think it's dangerous to the democracy and for those around the world watching what we do and how this president is covered in his early days, very dangerous to just throw in adjectives like that, either without evidence, but also without context."

  • January 26, 2017: White House Strategist Stephen Bannon said, “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States. You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” Asked if he was concerned that White House Press Secretary Spicer had lost credibility with the news media, Bannon chortled. “Are you kidding me? We think that’s a badge of honor. ‘Questioning his integrity’ — are you kidding me? The media has zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.” “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

  • February 27, 2017: In an interview with Breitbart News, President Trump repeated his charge that “the fake media is the opposition party” and “the enemy of the American people.” He also complained that “the intent” behind the New York Times is “so evil and so bad,” because “they write lies.”

  • February 28, 2017:In an interview with Fox News' Fox & Friends, President Trump said, “I do have to go around some media” using “Twitter and Facebook and all of the different things” because “dishonest media” are “putting it down differently from what I mean.” He went on to add that he wouldn’t use Twitter “if I felt the media were honest.”

  • March 1, 2017: When asked by MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski whether the Administration’s “war on the media” is over and if President Trump will continue to claim news outlets and stories are “fake news,” Vice President Mike Pence downplayed the administration’s aggression toward the press, characterizing it as “a willingness to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts.” Pence then defended Trump calling the media “the enemy of the people,” saying the media was pushing several “baseless and fabricated stories.”

  • March 7, 2017: Politico reported that Boris Epshteyn, a White House special assistant, "threatened earlier this year to pull all West Wing officials from appearing on Fox News after a tense appearance on anchor Bill Hemmer’s show." Epshteyn, whose "official job is to oversee White House officials who appear on television to speak on behalf of the administration," yelled at a Fox booker and made the threat after being pressed about Trump's original Muslim ban while on air.

  • March 8, 2017: The Senate Commerce Committee grilled FCC Chairman Ajit Pai over his refusal to directly answer whether he agreed or disagreed with the statement that the “media is the enemy of the American people.” (see A Little Part of the First Amendment Dies at FCC Oversight Hearing) Pai said, “I don’t want to wade into the larger political debates after insisting previously that “FCC Commissioners have the duty to speak out whenever Americans’ First Amendment rights are at stake.”

  • March 12, 2017: White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox News’ MediaBuzz and defended Trump's labeling of news organizations whose coverage he dislikes as the “enemy of the American people,” arguing that media outlets have a “responsibility” to not be “presumptively negative” in their coverage of the president.

  • March 15, 2017: In a campaign-style speech delivered in Nashville, TN, President Trump attacked the press, claiming, “Some of the fake news said, 'I don’t think Donald Trump wants to build the wall.' Can you imagine if I said we’re not going to build a wall? Fake news. Fake, fake news. Fake news, folks. A lot of fake.” Later, in an apparent reference to the reporters covering his rally, President Trump said, “they’re bad people, folks. They’re bad people.”

  • March 22, 2017: In an interview with Time magazine, President Trump attacked The Wall Street Journal for a critical editorial published on March 21, saying that he “thought it was a disgrace that they could write that.” President Trump added that “the Wall Street Journal is a part of” the so-called “fake media.”

  • March 25, 2017: White House press pool was blocked from entering Trump’s Washington, DC, hotel, “which is leased to [Trump] by the federal government.”

  • April 29, 2017: Vice President Pence said, “left-wing activists and their willing allies in the media, while they’ve been ignoring the facts and spreading that fake news, the American people know the truth." President Trump then launched a scathing attack on the media.

  • April 30, 2017: In an interview on ABC’s This Week, when asked if President Trump is going to pursue a constitutional amendment to “change the libel laws” in America, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said, “I think it’s something that we’ve looked at.”

  • May 1, 2017: During an interview with Fox host Eric Bolling, President Trump said he was “against the fake media,” and suggested that CNN’s coverage of him has been “negative” and that the media doesn’t “tell it like it is.”

  • May 2, 2017: The Trump campaign created a campaign ad on CNN labeling media figures including Andrea Mitchell, Wolf Blitzer, and Rachel Maddow “fake news.” CNN refused to air the ad, saying in a statement, “‘The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.’’ The Trump campaign in response called CNN’s blocking of the ad “absolutely shameful.”

  • May 5, 2017: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to a question about a Politico story by saying, “My first piece of advice would never be to use Politico for a source of -- for your story.”

  • May 10, 2017: Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak was closed to all press except for Russia’s state-run TASS. The same day, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price defended police arresting Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman after he repeatedly asked Price about the Republican health care bill.

  • May 12, 2017: In a series of tweets, President Trump threatens to cancel “all future ‘press briefings.’”

  • May 17, 2017: President Trump claims “no politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly” by the media.

  • May 21, 2017: Secretary of State Tillerson held a press conference with the Saudi foreign minister, but failed to notify American reporters about it.

  • May 28, 2017: In a series of tweets, President Trump says “fake news” is “the enemy.”

  • June 5, 2017: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump’s tweets are a way to communicate “that isn’t filtered through media bias.”

  • June 9, 2017: During a June 9 press conference with Romania’s president, President Trump criticized the “killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news.”

  • June 19, 2017: Trump administration banned journalists from broadcasting the audio of an off-camera “gaggle.”

  • June 21, 2017: During a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, President Trump called NBC News “this phony NBC television network.”

  • June 28, 2017: The White House announced that Trump’s fundraiser at his Washington (DC) hotel would be covered by the White House press pool, but then barred them two hours later, citing “logistical challenges bringing in the press.”

  • June 30, 2017: MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski alleged that “this year, top White House staff members warned that the National Enquirer was planning to publish a negative article about us unless we begged the president to have the story spiked.”

  • July 2, 2017: President Trump tweeted a video of him knocking over a person with a CNN logo imposed on their face.

  • July 5, 2017: A New York Times article reported that “White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card.” The Department of Justice later sued to block the merger.

  • July 6, 2017: During a press conference in Warsaw, Poland, President Trump replied to a question about his attacks against CNN by saying CNN has been “fake news for a long time” and that “NBC is equally as bad.”

  • July 8, 2017: After Polish President Andrzej Duda tweeted “Let’s FIGHT FAKE NEWS” with a clarification of a handshake between his wife and President Trump, Trump quoted Duda’s tweet and added, “We will fight the #FakeNews with you!” Duda had "been accused of trying to suppress his country's media outlets," and that press freedom organization Freedom House said the current Polish government is trying to “stifle the media and limit dissent and debate within the country.”

  • July 12, 2017: White House Press Secretary Huckabee Sanders said that media reporting on Russia-related scandals in the Trump administration is “undermining the credibility of the media.”

  • August 13, 2017: Trump campaign released an ad portraying the media as “the president’s enemies.”

  • August 14, 2017: After CNN’s Jim Acosta asked President Trump why he wasn’t holding a press conference as promised and asked if reporters could ask the president more questions, Trump said, “Doesn't bother me at all, but I like real news, not fake news. You're fake news..”

  • August 15, 2017: President Trump retweeted, then deleted, cartoon image of a 'Trump Train' hitting CNN figure.

  • August 15, 2017: President Trump lashed out at the media for criticizing his comments about the violence in Charlottesville, SC, saying, “if the press were not fake and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you and … unlike the media, before I make a statement I like to know the facts.” He continued his press bashing throughout the event and seem to mock a reporter who brought up the “alt-right” involvement in Charlottesville.

  • August 22, 2017: During a campaign rally in Phoenix, President Trump launched into an extensive attack on the “fake media,” calling journalists “truly dishonest people” who “make up stories.” Trump also said journalists “are sick people” who “don’t like our country. I really believe that.”

  • August 23, 2017: President Trump accused the media of giving "a platform to hate groups" and ignoring gang violence.

  • August 24, 2017: White House advisor Kellyanne Conway said media coverage “has become opinion commentary disguised as reporting.”

  • August 31, 2017: White House advisor Kellyanne Conway said “the media and Congress should take a deep, hard look at their approval ratings, which aren’t so hot, folks, and recognize that a lot of that is because they’re seen as obstructionist and resistant” to President Trump.

  • September 7, 2017: President Trump bonded with the the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, by “bashing the media.”

  • September 13, 2017: White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said ESPN would be justified in firing anchor Jemele who tweeted that President Trump and some of his supporters are  “white supremacists.” The following day, Sanders said, "I think ESPN should take actions."

  • September 19, 2017: Reporters are frustrated with decreased access to Defense Secretary James Mattis compared with previous administrations. A reporter who covered the Defense Department during the Obama administration was quoted describing the relationship between Mattis and the press as “the worst relationship I’ve ever seen.”

  • October 5, 2017: After the Senate Intelligence Committee held a press conference about its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, President Trump asked why the committee wasn’t investigating American news organizations.

  • October 7, 2017: President Trump tweeted that “More and more people are suggesting that Republicans (and me) should be given Equal Time on T.V. when you look at the one-sided coverage?”

  • October 11, 2017: President Trump tweeted, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” (see A New Salvo in President Trump’s Offensive on the Free Press) Chairman Pai remained quiet on the issue for a week, before releasing a tepid statement. (see Chairman Pai's Silence -- Was It Good For You?) “By their inaction, the Republican FCC commissioners have already violated their oath to uphold the Constitution,” former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote at the time.

  • October 16, 2017: Mother Jones reporter Rebecca Leber noted that she was no longer getting Environmental Protection Agency press emails.

  • October 17, 2017: In interviews with Mike Gallagher and Chris Plante, President Trump attacked several mainstream outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, and NBC, calling them “so inaccurate” and alleging that the outlets “have an agenda.” President Trump also lashed out at the media during an interview with Brian Kilmeade, host of the radio show Kilmeade & Friends and the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, calling the media “a bunch of fakers.”

  • October 18, 2017: When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing if he would “commit to not putting reporters in jail for doing their jobs,” Sessions replied, “Well, I don't know that I can make a blanket commitment to that effect. But I would say this: We have not taken any aggressive action against the media at this point. But we have matters that involve the most serious national security issues, that put our country at risk, and we will utilize the authorities that we have, legally and constitutionally, if we have to.”

  • October 22, 2017: White House Press Secretary Huckabee Sanders said, “I’ve been around press and worked in politics my entire life, and never experienced the level of kind of hostility that I think we see day to day” from the press.

  • October 22, 2017: President Trump said, “There is a fake media out there. I get treated very unfairly by the media. And I have a tremendous platform, I think I have 125 million people between Twitter and Instagram and all of them, and Facebook. I have a tremendous platform. So when somebody says something about me, I'm able to go bing, bing, bing, and I take care of it. The other way -- I’d never be able to get the word out.”

  • October 25, 2017: President Trump bragged that “I really started this whole fake news thing,” and that “I’m so proud I have been able to convince people how fake it is.”

  • November 2, 2017: President Trump said that “the media is very false and very fake.”

  • November 5, 2017: White House advisor Kellyanne Conway said, “I think a lack of transparency is also not telling the American people all the good that's happening for them.”

  • November 11, 2017: Concerning the Department of Justice’s opposition to AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner, President Trump said, “I did make a comment in the past as to what I think. I do feel that you should have as many news outlets as you can, especially since so many of them are fake. This way, at least you can get your word out. But I do believe you should have as many news outlets as you can. Now, with that being said, I didn’t make a statement on it, but I made that statement long before at the very early part. So we’ll see how that — it will probably end up being maybe litigation, maybe not. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

  • November 13, 2017: President Trump laughed when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called members of the press ‘spies’ after being asked about human rights as the two leaders met at the ASEAN Summit in Manila.

  • November 29, 2017: President Trump asked when the top executives at NBC and Comcast will be fired for putting out so much fake news. The same day, Trump also called for the firing of NBC’s Phil Griffin and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.

  • December 4, 2017: White House spokesman Hogan Gidley refused to answer reporters’ questions on the record on Air Force One.

  • December 9, 2017: President Trump calls CNN “the least trusted name in news!” and called for ABC reporter Brian Ross to be fired.

  • December 10, 2017: “Very little discussion of all the purposely false and defamatory stories put out this week by the Fake News Media,” President Trump tweeted. “They are out of control — correct reporting means nothing to them. Major lies written, then forced to be withdrawn after they are exposed … a stain on America!”

  • December 20, 2017: White House Press Secretary Huckabee Sanders blames President Trump’s low approval numbers on press coverage.

  • January 4, 2018: An attorney representing President Trump sent a cease-and-desist letter to Michael Wolff and his publisher over his new book on the Trump administration. White House Press Secretary Huckabee Sanders suggested Breitbart News Network and and former-White House Strategist Steve Bannon should part ways because of remarks attributed to Bannon in the book. (Bannon stepped down 5 days later.)

  • January 6, 2018: President Trump complained that “the libel laws are very weak in this country.”

  • By January 10, 2018 the Washington Post estimated that President Trump had made 2,001 false or misleading claims in 355 days. That’s an average of more than 5.6 claims a day. That day, President Trump pledged to make it easier for people to sue news organizations and publishers for defamation, denouncing the country’s libel laws as a “sham.”

  • January 17, 2018: The GOP and President Trump reveal their 2017 Fake News Awards.

A Turning Point?

This past week may mark a turning point in Republicans’ tolerance for the president’s rhetoric.

On January 16, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) wrote an op-ed calling on President Trump to stop attacking the press, warning that “President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate.” He added, “The phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens…. Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press also make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable.”

“We cannot afford to abdicate America’s long-standing role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world. Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression,” Sen. McCain wrote.

Sen. McCain concluded, “Ultimately, freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values. Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.”

The next day, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) delivered remarks on the Senate floor on the importance of truth to a democracy, saying, “Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language.” Sen. Flake went as far as to draw the comparison of Trump’s rhetoric to that of Josef Stalin who also called individuals who disagreed with him the “enemy of the people.” “The president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.” Flake went on to say:

Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship -- and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it. Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

Sen. Flake called for a national course correction, saying, “No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And ... an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame -- is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”


Is Trump winning his war on the media? This was the question asked this week by The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman. The question was answered by a series of more questions: Is it keeping his approval ratings from being the lowest of any president in history at this point in his term? Does it enable him to win arguments over things like whether he referred to “shithole” countries? Is it keeping Democrats from winning one stunning victory after another in off-year and special elections? Is it going to stave off the anti-Trump wave election in November that even some Republicans now believe they can do nothing to stop?

The question we’ve been asking at Benton over the past year, however, is: are the American people the losers in this fight? After listening to Arizona senators Flake and McCain this week, we believe the answer is loud and clear.

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