Donald Trump, the entertainer-President, frequently highlights the importance of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment. In case you’ve forgotten, that’s the bit that allows pretty much any Tom, Dick or Stephen Paddock to nip into their local gun shop to pick up another semi-automatic to add to their burgeoning collection.
I say Trump knows the importance. In fact, he understands the value – which is basically however many millions of dollars his support for the unencumbered right to bear arms will ensure he receives in donations from the National Rifle Association.
But before you get to the Second Amendment, there is another one to get through. It’s catchily called the First Amendment, which maybe reflects its importance to America’s early lawmakers, who enshrined in its words the right to free speech and expression.
On this constitutional nicety, the current US President appears less sold, primarily because it outrageously confers on his fellow Americans permission to disagree with their leader. You can see why he gets himself in such a tizzy over Kim Jong-un: he must be green with envy over the North Korean’s ability to control his people’s every thoughts and actions.
Trump has long lambasted the media in his homeland, convinced that every outlet bar Fox and those blogs run by the Kremlin are part of a liberal establishment which is out to get him. His tweets slating the purveyors of “fake news” are as multitudinous as they are bombastic. And of course his tweets, paranoid and sad (sorry, SAD!) as they are, are themselves protected by the First Amendment.
After months of anti-media vitriol, we should have seen his latest attack coming. Yet there is still something shocking about the leader of the Free World seemingly raise the spectre of removing the licenses of broadcasters he doesn’t much like.
First came the tweeted threat: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” Then, having no doubt been gladdened by the reaction, he went on to assert: “It’s frankly disgusting that the press is able to write whatever it wants.”
The President’s defence – such as it is – is to argue that journalists get things wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. And he’s right that the media does sometimes foul up. But what he identifies as “fake news” is nothing of the sort – and is usually a view he doesn’t agree with or a true but inconvenient fact.
To query the right of respectable, professional journalists to operate is the kind of thing that facile bullies do on social media all the time. That the President of the US is doing it perhaps doesn’t surprise anyone nearly a year into his term of office – but it is truly chilling.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace, some have questioned whether the media was complicit in covering up his despicable behaviour, or in smearing those who rejected his advances. If it was, journalists and their bosses must search their souls.
But Weinstein’s exposure – however belated – highlights too the media’s crucial role in holding the powerful to account. That is why Trump hates so much of what he sees in the papers and on TV – because he cannot control people who are seeking to shine a spotlight on his policies, his personality and his often bizarre presidency.
Maybe the playground rhyme about sticks and stones breaking bones but names never hurting is a British thing. Evidently Trump doesn’t buy it, in any case.
He appears not to give a damn about any number of sticks, stones or bump stocks, however many casualties they cause, because they can’t show up his absurdities or prick his ginormous ego. When it comes to words though, they have the capacity to damage him very much.
Yes, the media has an obligation to aim for the truth. But Trump has a duty – to which he must be held – not to take aim at free speech.