Arif Hasan and Ben Natan talk about the nature of a free press and how it’s eroding in both structural ways and through deterrence. We discuss different types of press infringements and freedoms before moving onto the recent escalation of words and missiles in North Korea.
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Show Notes (First Amendment)
Freedom House has been evaluating global press freedom in 200 countries for 38 years and for the first time I can recall, they made a note about the United States in their annual report. They note that press freedom has been on the decline globally for 13 years but they largely project that future declines will be the result of Donald Trump’s attacks on the press, which they argue has an influence on how likely it is other authoritarian regimes handle their press.
Language, like deployment of Stalins’ “enemy of the people” line, has suggested that the valence be flipped on how the government and the press interact; that the government holds the press accountable instead of the other way around.
There are other, non-Trump, factors that play a role. The fact that billionaires can use privacy lawsuits to bankrupt media companies for personal grudges is significant. Add to that, the difficulty of a sustainable business model for investigative journalism and increasing polarization of media, and there’s a lot to be desired in modern media coverage.
The author of the section on the United States expanded on his argument in the Washington Post, and argued that the modern media landscape and hostile attitude from the administration further inhibits press freedoms globally:
The danger is that the new U.S. leadership may, in effect, be offering a license to governments elsewhere that have cracked down on the media as part of a more ambitious authoritarian strategy. There is little doubt that autocrats everywhere are watching what the United States does — and what its new president says. The duty of the press is to hold government accountable, not be its spokesperson or propaganda arm. The government has a duty to respect that obligation.
When political figures in the United States deride the media for helping citizens hold their government accountable, they encourage foreign leaders with autocratic goals to do the same. When U.S. officials step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill. A weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for freedom everywhere.
I quoted Foreign Policy magazine and it was difficult for me to get one specific part to quote because it has so many powerful lines.
The message from America’s highest official — that the world’s most professional and trusted media outlets are malicious frauds, that facts and fakeries are equivalent, and that press access to policymaking and diplomacy must submit to the whims of the powerful — represent a set of values that could undermine democracy. As every parent, corporate CEO, and Fox News staffer knows, values are set at the top.
. . .
That brings us to the ways Trump’s attitudes reverberate worldwide. While the U.S.’s record on press freedom ranks below that of many Western democracies, the powerful American news media and its worldwide reach have made Washington the de facto standard-bearer for robust independent media globally. Between 2009 and 2012, the United States spent more than $300 million to train and equip independent editors, journalists, and bloggers around the world and advance media freedom. Senior U.S. officials routinely call out foreign governments for mistreating the press. Until recently, that is.
That dovetails with Carl Bernstein’s statements about Trump and what he views as attacks on the essence of the First Amendment.
Speaking of “essence,” the nature of our First Amendment case law is much more than direct government intervention in press activity. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the court established, “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
They also found in that case that “fear of damage awards” can be even more inhibiting of constitutionally protected speech than “fear of prosecution under a criminal statute.”
These are fears that Donald Trump has exploited. Trump has been brazen about attempting to create a chilling effect on criticism. He pursued a $5 billion lawsuit that he claims he knew he was going to lose, but said to the Washington Post, “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about”
All of this is reminiscent of the “you hit me, I hit you back ten times harder” doctrine that he and his supporters have argued justifies his actions—completely ignoring the fact that the initial “hits” are forms of accountability and “hitting back” is a form of silencing media. The idea that regular, everyday reporting is a slight that needs to be punished is poisonous to the concept of open debate and dialogue.
I mentioned some background from during the Trump campaign about some of the broken libel laws in England. The concept of libel terrorism ties in with those court protections listed above and are present in the distinctions between the United States and the United Kingdom’s approach.
This concern about essence and tertiary effects is important, because we’ve long recognized the importance that “chilling effects” have on the exercise of rights. Common Dreams has a decent rundown on the cascade of some of the contributing events.
Those are all important, but maybe the most dangerous was his request that the FBI crack down on the press for publishing leaks. It is significant, but hidden int he rest of the details released during the James Comey testimony.
This all comes together with Trump’s willful ignorance of the Constitution.
It would be one thing if Trump merely displayed a lack of knowledge of the Constitution. Ignorance can be corrected. However, the problem is not just that Trump is ignorant of the Constitution; it’s that he doesn’t care. His political philosophy, to the extent that he has one, is the demagoguery that the Founders designed the Constitution to protect us against.
. . .
Trump has a dictator’s impulse to simply make decisions without regard for his potential constitutional role or its limits. When Khizr Khan confronted Trump at the convention, he demanded that Trump recognize those limits when it comes to individual rights. Trump’s impulsive response to attack not only Khan but his wife reinforces the sense that Trump’s personal constitution is deeply at odds with the restraints demanded by the U.S. Constitution.
Show Notes (CNN)
We don’t have a lot to say on the controversy surrounding CNN’s piece and subsequent reporting on the guy who made the GIF Trump tweeted out. Boilerplate language inserted by editors (not the author) to protect themselves in case they are ever in a situation where they end up naming the creator of the meme is not the same as blackmailing him—especially because blackmail always works better in private communication instead of vague public statements.
It’s pretty clear why CNN investigated them in the first place; a running story throughout the campaign was the unusual relationship Donald Trump’s twitter and Donald Trump’s campaign had with the otherwise typically ignored ground-level agitators.
It brings up realistic questions about how Trump receives information and which sources he uses. It has further manifested itself in the presidency in the form of serious questions about how Trump is informed of the policies he ends up executing. Sometimes that means he ends up agreeing with the last thing he hears on an issue and can explain a lot of the policy incoherence from the White House (for more on policy incoherence, check out episode seven).
Information reception is a fairly consistent issue – there are reports that complex personnel briefings (like for the upcoming bilat with Putin) reduce pages of files to tweet-length sentences for comprehension and in order to maintain his attention, national security documenters are inserting his name as often as possible into their briefings so he actually reads them . They attempt to slip one-pagers to the top of his daily briefings so that he will end up “proposing” what is proposed on that top sheet of paper, like the tax plan he put forth built directly from a NYT op-ed.
So how and where Trump gets information is pretty relevant and this example provides context—if the president is trawling through /r/The_Donald that might indicate some unusual insecurities about a need for praise but more importantly means that his information environment could be toxic. Given that Andrew Kaczynski (the reporter who ended up finding the user who posted the GIF) is a career investigative reporter with a history of using case study to illustrate larger points, this is perfectly in line with Kaczynski’s prior reporting style, an important question about the presidency and a long-running theme we’ve seen for some time.
It was clearly part of a larger analysis package that delved into this issue (with coverage on TV and articles online)
I don’t like defending CNN. I think their style of news reporting and analysis in general is its own kind of toxicity that is different in nature and less damaging than Fox News, but damaging nevertheless. Carlos Maza has a fantastic video on this.
But Kaczynski generally does good work (his piece on David Clarke was excellent -and check out his history at Buzzfeed, where he uncovered clips of Hillary calling some children superpredators, fact-checked Donald Trump’s claim on his history of support/opposition to the Iraq War, reporting on Sanders’ clips where he supports Sandinistas or the clip of Romney calling himself progressive) and this isn’t an example of a problem by CNN or the type of problem CNN has with its coverage.
Investigative reporting should be encouraged, especially for CNN of all places.
Show Notes (North Korea)
First, listen to our episode on North Korea, that went over the larger context of the initial spike in tensions during this administration. In that episode, we went over the incentives that undergird North Korea and China, as well as the different capabilities that we know have been demonstrated by North Korea.
As an update, Vox has more information on what the most recent missile test means with regards to North Korea’s actual capabilities.
This piece on their site further explains the corner Trump has been painted into and why it will be difficult to undo.
What may end up being critical to understand is that a war with North Korea would be devastating to the tune of hundreds of thousands of people.