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Trump 8: The unfree press

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Yes, our news media is not passing through 2016 festooned by medallions of glory. Evidence point number one for that propositions is a statement from February by Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer at CBS, about the Donald Trump-led circus that had become the campaign for president: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS … the money’s rolling in and this is fun.” No presidential candidate in history has benefitted like Trump from the immense amount of free coverage he has received – estimated about six months ago to have been worth (by that point) more than $2 billion.

Hard to remember how broadcasters once spoke of television as operating in, gulp, the public interest. Circuses and ratings are all that matter now.

In some quarters. In others, actual journalism still manages to break through and make itself felt. And for every clod-minded misstep (to take the most recent example, the way so many in the media fell for last weekend’s FBI non-statement on non-Hillary Clinton e-mails), others manage to come up with serious reporting.

Which Donald Trump cannot stand. The Washington Post has probably been the single most effective investigator of the endless issues and problems associated with Trump, and the Trump campaign’s response (not one normal in politics, it should be noted) was to ban the paper from his campaign. Post editor Marty Baron called that “nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press”.

Actually, Trump may have done the press, and those of us who depend on it for information, something of a favor: By kicking them out, he forced them to rely on serious shoe-leather investigation like the great pieces on Trump finances by reporter David Fahrenthold, rather than “insider” pablum.

But there’s a lot more to Trump’s war on the press than playing games at rallies. (Where, by the way, he’s only barely stopped short of siccing ramped-up-for-violence crowds on the penned-up reporter.) He has, for example, said that he plans to go after Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post (as well as the founder of Amazon.com), should he be elected. This candidate well known for personal vendettas, who gets out of control in pursuit of them, will be all over the news media if he wins.

If that only meant some heat on the top players, our concern might not be so great. But it would mean much more.

As first-amendment attorney Marc J. Randazza said in an opinion piece early this year, “Donald Trump has said a lot of strange things – some funny, some creepy, but none scarier than what he said on Friday: that if he is elected president, he will “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue the media and “win lots of money.” No matter what you may think about his other policy ideas, if he keeps this promise, we won’t be able to effectively express dissent against anything else he might want to do. We can fight any bad policy if we have a robust First Amendment.”

Writer Matthew Yglesias sums it up, “His recent anti-media tirades have, again, featured the suggestion that he’s not just complaining but would genuinely like to subject the press to an unconstitutional censorship regime.”

To which Ezra Klein added, “In my experience, it goes yet deeper than this. Quietly, privately, political reporters wonder if Trump is a threat to them personally — if he were president, would he use the powers of the office to retaliate against them personally if he didn’t like their coverage of his administration? How certain are they that their taxes are really in order? How sure are they that a surveillance state controlled by Trump would tap their phones and watch their emails for leverage?”

The America a Donald Trump would lead is not the America we know. – rs

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