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It’s alarming enough that tens of thousands of reporters, editors, researchers, and photographers, among others, are losing their jobs as more and more news outlets are being forced to shut down amid the economic carnage of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected and even killed a growing number of journalists.
All of which is hardly cause for the news media’s alleged “glee” and “delight” at the nationwide spread of COVID-19—the offensive claim of failed Republican presidential candidate-turned Donald Trump devotee Marco Rubio.
“I’m very concerned about the future of American public support for fact-based journalism,” the report’s author, former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., told The Daily Beast. “I’m really worried that what’s going on really is an existential threat to press freedom in the United States.”
President Donald Trump’s relentless denigration of journalists—calling them “scum,” “lowlifes,” “corrupt,” “dishonest,” “fake news,” and other choice epithets—has been largely effective, Downie said.
“He is doing this, as he has said [to CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl], in order to convince the public that they should not believe anything that’s written about him that he doesn’t like,” said Downie, whose report cites a recent Pew Research Center study showing that “Trump’s attacks have had the most success in eroding the credibility of the American press among his many millions of supporters.”
“He’s convincing a large part of the American population not to believe the press at a time when the news media is so important as a conveyor of information about what is going on in the pandemic and the response to the pandemic,” Downie said. “It is very dangerous to American democracy if a large part of the population never believes what the press is doing, and particularly doesn’t believe the press when they are trying to hold the government accountable.”
Downie, a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism (and this writer’s former boss at the Post), added: “The corollary to that is many of those people who do not believe the fact-seeking press do believe right-wing media that are not telling the truth.”
He said the president’s penchant for fabricating “alternative facts” (as his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway infamously defended then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer) or simply uttering outright lies—surpassing the 18,000 mark this week, according to the Post’s running count—has become a hallmark of an administration that has little regard for facts and truth.
“You can find falsehoods in every administration, but it is so much more prolific in this administration,” said Downie, who as a young journalist participated in the Post’s Watergate coverage during Richard Nixon’s presidency. “And it’s not just the president. It’s everybody who speaks for the president in the White House. The new press secretary [Kaleigh McEnany] has only been lying in her career so far. And so many lies come out of the rest of the administration as well. It’s much more pervasive than we’ve ever seen before.”
The CPJ report—for which Downie received research help from Stephanie Sugars, a reporter for the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker—documents a host of disturbing developments that originated during the 2016 presidential campaign and accelerated after Trump took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017.
“The Trump administration has stepped up prosecutions of news sources, interfered in the business of media owners, harassed journalists crossing U.S. borders, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media,” Downie writes. “But Trump’s most effective ploy has been to destroy the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill tens of thousands of Americans.”
The CPJ report continues: “In response to Trump’s steady stream of verbal attacks, members of the press were regularly booed at Trump rallies, and reporters named in his tweets have been repeatedly harassed online. There also have been credible threats to news organizations, with CNN frequently targeted.
“The president’s press secretaries, other White House aides and administration officials, along with Trump’s allies in Congress also repeatedly attacked the press, often parroting the president’s language. Along with Trump’s thousands of documented false statements and his promotion of discredited conspiracy theories, the administration’s attacks on the credibility of the news media have dangerously undermined truth and consensus in a deeply divided country.”
In addition, “the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has questioned journalists at border posts, searched their electronic devices, and monitored their movements in a secret database.”
The report adds: “Trump himself has called for boycotts of news organizations and changes in libel law to punish the press. His re-election campaign sued The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN for libel for opinions expressed by their columnists and contributors. He tried unsuccessfully to take away White House press credentials from journalists and news organizations whose questions and stories he did not like. He encouraged federal government interference in the businesses of the owners of CNN, the traditional broadcast networks, and The Washington Post.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has escalated an alarming trend of prosecuting confidential sources under the 103-year-old Espionage Act, a trend which began under George W. Bush and accelerated under Barack Obama.
“Trump and his attorneys general”—Jeff Sessions and William Barr—“have refused to rule out prosecuting reporters themselves,” the report states.
Despite his claims of transparency, President Obama was no friend of the press, as Downie documented in an October 2013 report for CPJ. Trying to plug leaks, the Obama administration scoured the phone records of Fox News national-security correspondent James Rosen and cited him as a possible “criminal co-conspirator”; Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, came close to jailing New York Times investigative reporter James Risen in an effort to force him to reveal confidential sources.
Yet unlike the Trump administration—which basically stonewalled Downie, ignoring his interview requests (with the notable exception of a Pentagon spokesperson and former White House Communications Director Mike Dubke)—top officials of the Obama White House clearly respected the role of the news media, spending many hours engaging with Downie in an attempt to influence his 2013 conclusions.
“Everybody was cooperative then actually. It didn’t mean they were nice,” Downie recalled. “Jay Carney [the White House press secretary] spent a lot of time with me. He argued with me a lot and raised his voice, etc.,” Downie added with a laugh. “But it was a great conversation, and I was able to put his views in the report.”
While an exceedingly grim picture emerges from the current CPJ report, Downie did find a few bright spots:
•The quality of American journalism continues to improve. “We now have some of the best news organizations that the world has known,” Downie quotes ProPublica founder and former Wall Street Journal Editor Paul Steiger.
•Because of an unprecedented proliferation of leaks from Trump administration insiders—many of them disgruntled and eager to drop a dime on their colleagues and bosses—reporters have been able to ferret out compelling details of the internal workings (or, more likely, the dysfunction) of the Trump White House.
•Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has displayed a refreshing streak of independence in the face of the president’s saber-rattling to challenge the licenses of broadcast outlets that displease him. “I believe in the First Amendment,” the report quotes Pai. “The FCC, under my leadership, will stand for the First Amendment.”