In an 1822 letter to the American jurist and statesman W.T. Barry, James Madison wrote: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Madison was prescient. America in 2020 is lucky enough to have “popular information”—a vibrant (if flawed) free press that holds public officials accountable—but it also has a President in Donald Trump who has been steadily chipping away at this foundation of our democracy for many years. And he has been doing so with considerable success. Are we, then, living in “a prologue to a farce or a tragedy”? Or is it worse: Has the prologue concluded and has this unfortunate main act already taken the stage?
Let’s consider a few examples of what President Trump has been engaged in along these lines. First: verbal disparagement of the press, repeated almost endlessly, an effective technique for propagandists. As is so often the case with this President, he has little hesitation in saying the quiet part out loud. Chatting with CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl in July 2016, he answered her exasperated question about why he constantly puts down and berates journalists: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all, and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
It’s a plan he has stuck with—trying to hurt the credibility of journalists and news organizations as they attempt to hold him accountable for his constant lies, for his failure to separate his business dealings from the business of the White House, for his often shocking approach to foreign policy and leaders. To some extent, his efforts are working: A 2018 Monmouth University survey found that three in four Americans believe that traditional news organizations report “fake news.”
With the help of right-wing media organizations, particularly Fox News, he has attempted to undermine legitimate reporting on how he has conducted himself. Over the recent Labor Day weekend, only a day after Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic reported that Trump had referred to wounded or dead American military members as “losers” and “suckers,” Fox News was doing its best to help him reduce the damage. Even though a reporter at Fox News had confirmed Goldberg’s reporting, Fox was leading its website not with the story itself but with Trump’s disingenuous spin.
“It’s a Hoax,” read the headline over a story, quoting Trump’s claim that the credible and confirmed reporting was nothing but a bunch of leftist lies. And the sub-headline went his way too: “Trump denies Atlantic report he belittled military in canceled trip amid conflicting accounts.” Did anyone believe Trump, rather than the reporting itself? You can be sure they did. Nearly four years into his presidency, Trump’s almost constant repetition has done its work, just as he told Stahl it would. A negative story? Fake news. An assertive reporter? Dishonest—or worse. Last March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread wildly in the United States, Peter Alexander, White House correspondent at NBC News, politely posed this question to Trump at a coronavirus briefing: “What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?”
Trump lashed out: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”
The phrase “fake news” may seem as if it has been always with us, although it’s only been around for a few years. Trump, with his particular knack for magnifying destructive insults and phrases, popularized it during the 2016 campaign, and it was not long after, as I argued in a Washington Post column, that the term had become weaponized—no longer meaning deliberately made-up, false information in the form of news stories, but something even more diabolical. Trump has sowed enough confusion with his repetition that the phrase now means something more like “factual news that I don’t like.” As journalism scholar Nikki Usher told me in 2017, “The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become.”
Another example of Trump’s malfeasance when it comes to the press: his threats to use the powers of the federal government to go after businesses or individuals who own news organizations. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a particular and longstanding target; for years, Trump has railed about what he considers the online retailer’s “scam” shipping deal with the U.S. Postal Service, claiming it costs the federal agency “billions of dollars.” And he is not shy about connecting all of this with his real concern: Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has done some of the most rigorous work holding him to account before and after his election. Nor is this the only example: Last year, Trump even went so far as to call for a consumer boycott of AT&T, which owns CNN—perhaps his most frequent media target. (Recall the chants of “CNN Sucks!” at his 2016 campaign rallies, and his Administration’s attempt to take away CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press pass.) Earlier, when AT&T was trying to acquire Time Warner, then CNN’s parent company, Trump not only complained about the deal, but also (according to Post reporting) instructed Administration officials including Gary Cohn, John F. Kelly, and Rob Porter to tell the Justice Department to block it. Commenting to the Post in 2019, historian Jon Meacham assessed this bluntly: “For a president to call for punitive action against a corporation in an effort to shape news coverage is, to say the least, highly unusual . . . the kind of behavior more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones.”
And perhaps most serious of all: Trump’s Justice Department has attempted to criminalize some of the basic practices of national security reporting by using the Espionage Act to prosecute Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, for his role in obtaining and publishing secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Former New York Times investigative reporter James Risen reacted thus to the 17-count indictment against Assange: “It’s very obvious that the White House and Trump are pressuring and politicizing the Justice Department to go after the press.”
With Trump, the techniques are varied: Disparage journalists, undermine legitimate reporting, threaten punishment, and try to cripple the institution in the courts. But the aim is singular: Weaken the institution that would hold him accountable.
The American press is far from perfect. As a media critic, I spend much of my time pointing out its flaws and shortcomings. But the best American journalists and news organizations have tried to hold Trump to account, both before and during his presidential tenure, despite his frequent abuses and threats. In doing so, they have heeded Madison’s prescient warning that, in a working democracy, public knowledge must govern public ignorance. What the electorate ultimately does with that knowledge, of course, is yet to be determined.