President Donald Trump’s attacks on the press could do more damage than making CNN the butt of Twitter jokes, according to two Utah professors. Portraying the press as an enemy makes it that much easier for him to prejudice the public against any group he wants — including immigrants, certain races and religions, and the intelligence community.
“An effort to persuade the people that this democracy-enhancing institution is an enemy can be the first step in a very dangerous direction,” said University of Utah professor RonNell Andersen Jones.
Because if the press is made out to be an enemy, she said, it’s unable to “push back” when other groups are made out to be enemies.
Examining Trump’s tweets, speeches and statements, Andersen Jones and Brigham Young University professor Lisa Grow Sun determined that he has used his power to portray the press as an “illegitimate enemy of the American people,” and then exclude it from law and liberty protections.
For example, Anderson Jones said, Trump has revoked press credentials and refused to answer questions from reporters he doesn’t like. Most recently, she noted, he has “urged the revocation of broadcast licenses of news organizations whose coverage he dislikes.”
These actions can have dangerous effects on other vulnerable entities, like immigrants or refugees, the professors wrote in a research paper published in the latest issue of the Arizona State Law Journal.
In his campaign for president, for example, Trump often associated Mexican immigrants — documented and undocumented — with violence that put U.S. citizens in danger.
The Washington Post, the Hill and other news organizations quickly published articles after his speeches or statements relating immigration to crime.
But as named enemies of the president, those news organizations’ stories don’t carry as much weight as they used to — and Trump’s depiction of “vulnerable populations as external enemies” goes unchecked, the professors wrote.
After Trump last summer implemented a travel ban on countries with predominantly Muslim populations, for example, American Muslims told the Pew Research Center that there’s “a lot” of discrimination against them in the U.S. And when respondents were asked about the most important problems facing U.S. Muslims today, the most popular answers were “discrimination, racism and prejudice,” “Muslims being viewed as terrorists” and “Trump’s attitudes and policies toward Muslims.”
Past presidents have also battled with the press — Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford were known for a lack of transparency or efforts to “control, manipulate or combat the work of the press,” Andersen Jones said.
But Trump is the first to publicly wage war against the so-called Fourth Estate, the professors wrote.
As a candidate and as president, Trump has attacked the press through his Twitter account by referring to some of the largest news organizations as “fake,” “very biased,” “a stain on America” and “the enemy of the American people.” He even began a “Fake News” awards program for the “most corrupt and biased of the Mainstream Media,” with The New York Times and CNN leading the way.
Adding to their troubles, Andersen Jones said, are other factors, like money and social media, which have also played into Trump’s “enemy” construction.
“[News organizations] don’t have the financial resources that they once had,” Andersen Jones said. “The president doesn’t think that he even needs to keep a good relationship with them. The president has a Twitter account so he can speak directly to the American people and doesn’t need the press as his intermediary. So he doesn’t feel compelled to preserve some relationship with them or some modicum of press credibility.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists says that Trump’s rhetoric normalizes the action of imprisoning journalists not just in the U.S., but around the world.
At least 21 journalists around the world, a record number, were imprisoned on a charge of “false news” in 2017, according to the CPJ.
Andersen Jones said she and her co-author do not think the press is perfect — they simply wish to bring awareness to the dangers of vilifying it as a whole.
“Our position is that democracy calls for protection of many media voices,” she said.
In order to combat Trump’s “enemy” construction, Andersen said, the public will have to support the press by speaking up in its defense and “paying for news from reputable sources.”