America’s freedom of the press faces threats from all sides
President Trump, police and courts have plunged the constitutionally protected freedom of the press into serious jeopardy through efforts to suppress, harass and delegitimize the media.
November 11, 2019
The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. America’s founders enumerated this liberty to ensure Americans could keep those in power accountable. 230 years later, the press’s freedom stands on a precipice. President Trump, police and courts have plunged the constitutionally protected freedom of the press into serious jeopardy through efforts to suppress, harass and delegitimize the media.
To begin, President Trump has stifled the press’s ability to report on him, such as in 2017 when the White House barred several news outlets, such as The New York Times and CNN, from a press conference while allowing Trump-friendly outlets like Breitbart to attend. White House deputy communications director Raj Shah denied the ban. In 2018, Trump rescinded CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press pass after Acosta continually pressed Trump on his calling a migrant caravan “an invasion.” These instances show the President can and will silence reporters with whom he does not agree.
In addition, Trump often labels (typically on Twitter) critical reporting as “Fake News.” For example, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions.’ That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).” However, Trump expressed several times in the year preceding the September tweet that he would meet with Iran with “no pre-conditions.” Trump often refers to the media as fake, and he also called the press “truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” in an April 2019 tweet. The President of the United States levying insults like these toward the press illustrates his extreme lack of distrust for the press.
Police have also suppressed journalists. In Feb. 2017, police arrested journalist Jenni Monet for trespassing while she was reporting on protests to the Dakota Access Pipeline in Morton County, North Dakota. Monet showed her press pass, but police still detained her. After a one-day trial in June 2018, a North Dakota judge ruled that Monet was not guilty. In March 2019, police in Sacramento, California, arrested student journalists William Coburn and Scott Rodd of The State Hornet for failure to disperse at a police shooting protest. Rodd said police acknowledged they were reporters but did not care. Their charges were later dropped. These examples prove some American police forces believe journalists should not be allowed to freely report on police activities.
Finally, courts have issued subpoenas against journalists to access confidential sources and information. The U.S. Press Freedom tracker lists 19 subpoenas against journalists in 2019, many of which were quashed, like Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven’s after his lawyers argued reporter’s privilege protected him from having to testify about his reporting on the case of three Chicago police officers. Not all journalists succeeded, though; without a subpoena, the Department of Justice seized phone and email records from Ali Watkins, a New York Times reporter, because of her connection to Senate Intelligence Committee security director James Wolfe. The courts and the Department of Justice’s actions are blatant violations of journalists’ right to protect sources and information.
Some measures the President, police and courts have taken against the press have been legitimate, such as when Port Authority officers arrested photojournalist Michael Nigro for trespassing on Port Authority-owned property. However, the majority of their attacks on the press have been unjustified and exemplify troubling suppression of the institution meant to keep them in check.
America’s freedom of the press faces danger from all sides. The President is delegitimizing the press, police are detaining journalists for exaggerated charges and courts are issuing orders for journalists to reveal classified information. America’s founders etched freedom of the press into the country’s foundation, which means these threats against journalists’ liberty to report and act as a watchdog are not just threats to journalism – they are threats to democracy.