Many people, including many Republican lawmakers, dismiss President Trump’s attacks on The Washington Post, CNN and other news organizations as just one of those crazy — but ultimately harmless — things he does to blow off steam. They’re wrong.
Yes, Mr. Trump hasn’t been able to implement many of his worst proposals to undermine the press. Congress hasn’t tried to change the First Amendment or pass new libel laws, for example, and journalists — including at the “failing New York Times” — regularly unearth new scandals in the Trump administration. But the president’s rhetoric is clearly having an effect in the United States and especially around the world, where political leaders have seen it as a green light to crack down on the press. Malaysian lawmakers this week passed a law that would impose prison sentences of up to six years on people found to be spreading “fake news,” an ill-defined term that will put tremendous power in the hands of government officials to punish journalists and publishers. In India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed revoking the accreditation of journalists who traffic in “fake news” before scrapping the idea after journalists denounced it.
In recent days, Mr. Trump turned his guns on The Post, accusing it of trying to advance the business interests of its owner, Jeff Bezos, and the company he founded and runs, Amazon. Much has been made of the accusations the president has hurled at Amazon’s business practices, like its unwillingness for many years to collect state and local sales taxes. Some of these practices are indeed troubling. But don’t be distracted. Mr. Trump isn’t really distressed about the coffers of state and local governments, small retailers or whether the United States Postal Service suffers losses delivering Amazon packages. He is trying to undermine the credibility of The Post because it is holding his administration to account.
Such attacks on the integrity of news organizations confuse the public about what’s true. Many Republican voters have long been skeptical of the mainstream news media, but their trust in it has fallen sharply since 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. And a study by two Yale professors found that Republicans were much more likely to trust hyperpartisan media outlets and news sites that peddle outright falsehoods than are Democrats. That phenomenon has undoubtedly bolstered by Mr. Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and his endorsements of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, which has compelled news anchors at its local TV stations to read outrageous statements questioning the credibility of other news organizations.
“Trump seems to be succeeding just through the force of his daily verbal assaults in shaking trust in the press and in other institutions that are crucial to our democracy,” says Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
When the president calls every piece of information he does not like “fake news,” he also encourages politicians in other countries who are not constrained by constitutional free speech protections or independent judiciaries to more aggressively squelch the press. They know that there will be little international condemnation of their actions because one of the most important standard bearers for a free press — the American government — is led by a man trying to discredit the free press.
Malaysia’s democracy is clearly flawed — the same coalition has ruled it since it became independent in 1957, and it has jailed opposition leaders on trumped-up charges — but it is not in the same league as countries like China and Russia, where freedom of speech is extremely circumscribed. By criminalizing “fake news,” it is heading in that direction. Indian democracy is much hardier, but journalists and free speech advocates are worried about the government’s hostility toward an independent press and fear it will become even more aggressive as next year’s parliamentary elections draw closer.
This is not a problem just in these countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented an uptick in attacks on the press in Egypt, Myanmar, Poland, Turkey and other countries. Last year, 21 journalists were imprisoned for reporting false news, twice as many as the year before, according to the committee.
Mr. Trump is unlikely to change his ways, and his most loyal supporters will support him no matter what he does. It is up to everybody else, Republicans and Democrats alike, to stand up and speak out against his destructive attacks on the press and the truth.