“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth.” – John Adams
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.“ – Hannah Arendt
“… the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve.” – Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black
There is little love between the current administration and the press, but the buildup of rhetoric from the White House as well as Congress has the potential to seriously harm the all-important freedom of the press. It is considered a significant enough threat that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has addressed the issue:
“Last week, Republicans on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a report on leaks to the media. The report, which was led by Chairman Ron Johnson, asserts that “an avalanche” of leaks under the Trump Administration is harming national security. It lists at least 125 news articles and their bylines – meaning a group of Senators has publicized the names over 100 reporters whom they allege have harmed U.S national security.
… the report was sent on July 6 to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has repeatedly threatened to find and prosecute leakers. “Whenever a case can be made, we will put people in jail,” Sessions said in April. He has since said that multiple investigations are underway.: – CPJ, 10 July 2017
The report is available from Politico in .pdf format, (link provided) but a few things stood out that I wish to include here (my commentary in blue italics):
- “Leaks with the capacity to damage national security flowed about seven times faster under President Trump than during President Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s first 126 days.” One might ask why this is … if one surrounds oneself with fools, this is what you get. However, from everything I can tell, there was no leaked information that compromised national security, only the security of Trump’s fragile ego and his continued term in office.
- “The majority of leaks during the Trump administration, 78, concerned the Russia probes.” The issue here is that national security was breached last year by Vladimir Putin, with assistance from Trump & Co. The only way the public is going to get any information is in this manner, as there is zero transparency from the White House.
- “Many stories presented President Trump in a negative and often harsh light, with some seemingly designed to embarrass the administration. For example, a Mother Jones article detailed a memo telling intelligence analysts to keep President Trump’s daily briefings short and to avoid nuance; a Reuters piece reported on how the National Security Council frequently puts his name in briefings so he will keep reading.” When a national leader acts like a bumbling 5-year-old, he deserves any ridicule he gets. In no way is this a breach of national security. The public needs and deserves to know what a fool they put into the White House.
In the Appendix, the report lists every single leak, its nature, the publication in which it first appeared, and most importantly, the name of the reporter(s) who penned the article. This is an abomination. CPJ outlines four major areas:
- The report’s methodology is not scientific and at times seems baldly political
- The report creates a false paradigm between national security and the free flow of information
- Listing individual reporters who allegedly harmed national security is something that illiberal nations do
- On the bright side, the report compiles some excellent arguments in favor of the free flow of information
I certainly understand that there are matters of national security that cannot and should not be made public information. However, in the nearly six months since Trump’s inauguration, there has not been a single leak to the press that compromised national security. The only information made public that compromised our national security came in the forms of tweets ‘n twits from Trump himself! If AG Sessions wants to put somebody in jail, he need look no further than the Oval Office.
My biggest concern is that this report leads us down a path similar to Turkey and Erdoğan’s crackdown on journalists, with some 152 journalists still imprisoned and 173 media outlets shut down. More than 2,500 journalists have been laid off and 800 have had their press cards revoked. If Jeff Sessions is given free rein to act on this ridiculous report, drafted by Republicans on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, our 1st Amendment right to a free press may well be crushed under the boot heel of a increasingly insecure and autocratic regime.
In other news related to freedom of the press …
White House Press Briefings:
Cameras were once again barred from the White House press briefing on Monday. In recent weeks this has happened increasingly, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s weak excuse has always been that Trump was giving some speech or address on the same day and he (Spicer) decides on those days that “the president’s voice should be the one that speaks and iterates his priorities.” But on Monday, Trump had no speeches planned, and in fact no events to attend … nothing. So what is the excuse now? None has been presented thus far, but it is yet another curtailment of the press, and thus the public’s access to what our government is doing.
It is interesting to note that the days no cameras and no recording devices are allowed, are typically days when some new information damaging to the Trump regime has surfaced. For example, over the weekend came the information that Don Trump, Jr., along with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner had actually met with a Russian lawyer seeking damaging information about Hillary Clinton last year. No doubt we the public would like much more information from the regime, but … it seems unlikely that there will be any, with the severely limited press briefing.
In fact, most of the recent press briefings have been nearly useless, with Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodging questions, or simply saying they do not know the answers. I can imagine that at the end of each press briefing they go into the Oval Office and sit up and beg for their pets and treats. An interesting aside …
Asked last month why there have been more off-camera briefings, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted a journalist at The Atlantic, “Sean got fatter.” And then … and then … get this … and then, Chelsea Clinton scolded Bannon for ‘fat-shaming’ Spicer!!!
White House Assaults Individual Reporter(s):
Jim Acosta of CNN has been, perhaps the most vocal of Trump’s detractors. His frustrations are many, his complaints legitimate. Almost every White House reporter shares his frustrations, but Jim is more outspoken, and he is paying a price for that.
He has said on the air that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s unresponsive answers were rendering him “just kind of useless” as a credible source; that the ever-briefer briefings have become “basically pointless”; that covering this White House has at times been like “covering bad reality television.”
He has repeatedly needled Spicer on Twitter, too: “I can’t show you a picture of Sean,” he tweeted, over a photo of his ankles, during a blacked-out briefing on June 19. “So here is a look at some new socks I bought over the wknd.”
Some, even within the Fourth Estate, have questioned whether Acosta is being too outspoken, taking the feud between Trump and CNN too far. Acosta’s reply to that is …
“I think I’m just covering a story, honestly. When the president of the United States calls the press ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the American people,’ I think that’s when you have to get tough and ask the hard questions.”
I tend to agree, however, his stance may be counter-productive. Sean Spicer has, himself been vitriolic toward Acosta:
“If Jim Acosta reported on Jim Acosta the way he reports on us, he’d say he hasn’t been very honest. I think he’s gone well beyond the role of reporter and steered into the role of advocate. He’s the prime example of a [reporter in a] competitive, YouTube, click-driven industry. He’s recognized that if you make a spectacle on the air then you’ll get more airtime and more clicks. . . . If I were a mainstream, veteran reporter, I’d be advocating for him to knock it off. It’s hurting the profession.”
CNN has become Trump’s whipping boy, and apparently Jim Acosta has become Sean Spicer’s personal whipping boy.
We must keep a diligent eye on the ball that is our freedom of the press. Once it begins to slip away, it will be harder to get back, and without it, we are destined to see other freedoms erode until eventually we find ourselves in a dictatorship. I shall return with more … stay tuned!