I was been a long critic of President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media even though I have been critical of biased reporting by some outfits. Trump’s mantra of calling the media, and particularly the Washington Post and the New York Times, “the enemy of the people” was repeated on Twitter last weekend as China banned the Washington Post (and the Guardian) from access to its citizens. Both publications joined others behind the infamous “Great Firewall” of China’s massive censorship apparatus. While Trump has only called for greater liability for American media (rather than censorship), the confluence of these stories is concerning. China can cite our own president in declaring the Washington Post as an enemy and “fake news” to justify its censorship of one of the last remaining free press accessible to some Chinese.
President Trump attacked the New York Times this weekend after the paper wrote a story suggesting that the deal with Mexico was not the result of Trump’s recent threats of a tariff but actually sealed weeks ago. The New York Times reported that the deal was pretty much completed and that the tariff drama was not material to the outcome.
Trump responded in a series of tweets that said:
Another false report in the Failing @nytimes. We have been trying to get some of these Border Actions for a long time, as have other administrations, but were not able to get them, or get them in full, until our signed agreement with Mexico. Additionally, and for many years,……Mexico was not being cooperative on the Border in things we had, or didn’t have, and now I have full confidence, especially after speaking to their President yesterday, that they will be very cooperative and want to get the job properly done. Importantly, some things……not mentioned in yesterday press release, one in particular, were agreed upon. That will be announced at the appropriate time. There is now going to be great cooperation between Mexico & the USA, something that didn’t exist for decades. However, if for some unknown reason…….there is not, we can always go back to our previous, very profitable, position of Tariffs – But I don’t believe that will be necessary. The Failing @nytimes, & ratings challenged @CNN, will do anything possible to see our Country fail! They are truly The Enemy of the People!
Clearly the “enemy of the people” line has become a standard campaign mantra but it not just unjustified but dangerous. It gives cover to countries like Russia and China in cracking down on the free press as purveyors of “fake news.” Indeed, China and other authoritarian countries have picked up this phrase. Previously, Trump not only called the New York Times “the enemy of the people” but said that the newspaper should
“beg his forgiveness.”
China has now added the Post to the Bloomberg, the New York Times, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal as blocked news sources. Of course, the reason is that the news is far too real for the taste of the Chinese government. While Trump has never called for such censorship, his rhetoric undermines the free press throughout the world as a time when journalists are being arrested and murdered at an alarming rate. Moreover, it is not just Trump. We are seeing Western Europe moving against the free press as it has done against free speech.
The United States has always been the bastion of protection for the free press. The President must be an advocate for this core freedom. He is perfectly free to criticize coverage (and there are ample examples of unfair coverage). However, presidents have long disagreed with coverage without adopting the rhetoric of authoritarian regime or denouncing media as an “enemy of the people.”