As Special Counsel Mueller chases small fish in old ponds, and the collusion story blows up in their faces like a fake cigar, the media is returning to its favorite piece of fake news: Trump is a dire threat to the media and to free speech. The latest entrant in Chicken Little’s Sweepstakes is Juan Wiliams, who took to The Hill to howl at the sky: “Trump’s war on the media is truly dangerous!” Williams was trying to catch up with reliable Democrat town crier E.J. Dionne who recently wailed in the Washington Post that “Trump is faithfully following the autocrat’s playbook.”
These gentlemen were way behind Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who, two months before Trump put his hand on the Bible (For the first time? Who knows?) prophesied: “Everything we have — everything that makes us unlike any other nation — flows from those words and the protections they offer for free expression. Donald Trump’s presidency is very likely to threaten those First Amendment rights.”
Ms. Sullivan in turn, was running behind the Committee to Protect Journalists a band of futurists and soothsayers that, a month earlier, had boiled frog eyes and newt guts and discerned: “This is not about picking sides in an election. This is recognizing that a Trump presidency represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern history.”
There are a few things to say to these shriekers. Mainly, poppycock. But, more elaborately, these points: First, they sincerely or maliciously confuse harsh criticism with actual suppression; Second, they are unworthy and unreliable messengers in this crucial clash, because they are crying wolf about a president’s mere verbal pushback after they essentially ignored actual state oppression by the prior president; and Third, they themselves are equally hostile and abusive combatants in an unhealthy war between president and media—it’s a new and uncomfortable world.
On the first point, Trump is the first president who has openly and aggressively refused to be a punching bag for the media. Ronald Reagan tried amiably to defuse media assault. George Bush mildly took their dishonest beatings in stoic silence (with disastrous effect on his cause and his supporters). Trump says, “Up yours, I’m going to punch back. You throw mud at me? I’m going to throw mud back at you.”
That is the bulk of the media’s indictment against Trump: “He criticizes us! He undermines our credibility! He urges the public to ignore us!” Well thank Gaia. It’s about time someone pointed out those partisan shills wear no clothes. That’s not usually a job for presidents, but, we’re in new territory here. Trump’s message resonates not just with Republicans, but a lot of unaffiliated voters, because they recognize the national media is, for the most part, the communication arm of the Democrat Left.
But, there is a critical difference between trying verbally to discredit reporters and networks (whether rightly or wrongly) and using government mechanisms to suppress and stymie their activities. On that score, Obama was the great transformer and offender.
So, on to point No. 2. While the media wails in horror that Trump is mean to them, they have amnesia about Obama’s concrete depredations and their Stockholmian silence in the face of actual state intrusion. While they prognosticate that Trump is the guillotine of good journalism, they maintain Omerta about Obama’s real sins.
Obama tried to exclude Fox News from White House press briefings. To their credit, other networks refused to go along. But, they did not spray a lot of anguish into the atmosphere about the threat to free speech seated in the Oval Office. They did the right thing, quietly. Very little of the public had occasion to perceive the authoritarian ambitions of the Cool One.
Obama surveiled media contacts with federal agencies. The Justice Department tracked entry logs at the State Department and elsewhere to sleuth out what illicit discourse might be going on between reporters and federal employees. The Obama administration subpoenaed phone records from the Associated Press. It spied on CBS reporter Sharyl Atkisson. It leaked that Fox News reporter James Rosen was an “unindicted co-conspirator.” It invoked the Espionage Act to an unprecedented degree against federal employees to intimidate whistleblowers and prevent them from talking to inquiring reporters.
During none of this did the national media bewail the menace to media and free speech that resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But today, Trump’s gruff manner and bulls-eye insults are a new and unique threat to the Republic, we are reliably and hysterically informed.
Finally, Point 3. The media is as dirty or dirtier than it accuses Trump of being. It votes 93% Democrat and reports perspectives in about the same proportion. Trump calls them out because they deserve to be called out. The Federalist’s David Harsanyi wrote a brilliant takedown of CNN and its brazen apple/banana ad, documenting ten times CNN told us an apple is a banana.
But, it doesn’t take a connected journalist with access to Lexis/Nexis to notice the media is a declared combatant in this war. They hype wispy leaks from anonymous sources about non-descript “contacts” between Trump aids and Russians. They write it up in a way that sounds like smoking gun confirmation that Trump paid Putin to hack into vote machines in key swing states to hand Trump the win. The live on the hype and clicks of the fumes of these stories for nearly a year. When a few hard facts come out, and it appears Hillary is the one who paid a foreign agent to milk Russian fiction to soak Trump, they quickly lose interest. In the vivid description of Dave Burge, blogging as IowaHawk, “Journalism is about covering important stories. With a pillow. Until they stop moving.”
It is not comfortable to have a president who makes unprecedented war on the media. It is not comfortable to have a media that makes unprecedented war on the president. But, this president has not used government muscle against the media. Its shrill cries are transparent nostalgia for the privileged days when it could punch Republican presidents and they did not punch back.