Trump and trickle-down press persecution

Illustration by Chelsea Beck

It’s become clear in recent months that Donald Trump’s growling at the national press has, in many ways, backfired. The New York Times and The Washington Post are producing exceptional and indignant stories about the new administration. Subscriptions have surged. Cable news ratings are hitting record highs. And nonprofit outlets like Mother Jones and ProPublica have seen a major increase in donations.

Times Editor Dean Baquet put it this way in late February: “There was a long time when the press wondered about its place in society. . . . What’s happened in the last couple of months, I have to say, has been tremendous for news organizations. Our mission is clearer than it’s ever been.”

I’m excited about the press’s reinvigoration, too, but I’m also worried about Trump’s anti-press words and deeds—and their trickle-down consequences for state and local journalists.

I contacted 16 editors or publishers of state and local newspapers in California, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas to ask if their papers had seen post-election bumps in subscriptions or readership. Their circulations range from 8,000 to 200,000 daily. Seven responded, and only one reported growth. The others didn’t know why they hadn’t seen growth or said their local focus might be to blame. I don’t want to lean too heavily on these results, which are anecdotal. But they only add to my concern that Trump’s anti-press antics will inspire unprecedented attempts to delegitimize the state and local press.

Consider what five press freedom experts told me:

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists: “When [Trump] belittles, attacks, and undermines journalists, that creates a new norm that has global repercussions as well as local ones. His rhetoric normalizes press freedom abuses at the state and local levels.”

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Clay Calvert, media law professor at the University of Florida: “Trump chums his base by bashing the press. Some local politicians undoubtedly will take a page from his playbook and use it against news outlets in their own cities and towns. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then this is the most dangerous form of mimicry.”

Katie Townsend, litigation director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: “If state or local officials take their cues from the top and view reporters and news organizations as ‘the enemy,’ then they may see nothing wrong with refusing to speak to certain outlets, or in denying them access to records and information.”

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association: “[Trump’s] invective and the administration’s actions barring certain news organizations from briefings will just embolden state and local officials to restrict press access based upon the perceived viewpoint of the coverage. This is exactly what the First Amendment was established to protect against.”

Brett Johnson, media law professor at the Missouri School of Journalism: “The big danger here is that so many statehouses are sneaky and insidious when it comes to rolling back press freedoms and access to information. They have been hugely successful when citizens have been apathetic or ambivalent toward the press. Imagine what might happen when citizens have been encouraged to be openly hostile toward the press.”

After the election, Republican governors in at least three states moved to kill the requirement that legal notices be published in local newspapers. Their stated purpose was saving money, but the effect (ulterior motive?) will be to reduce the papers’ resources and capabilities. In more than a dozen states, Republican lawmakers proposed bills to restrict protest activities as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the administration. Trump’s rhetoric has made appearances around the country, too: A Republican Colorado state senator called a local paper “fake news” after its editorial page criticized the senator for cancelling a hearing on an FOI bill. (The publisher threatened to sue the senator for libel.) And a Republican Tennessee state representative labeled as “fake news” a report by a CBS affiliate in Nashville that called out the lawmaker, who has unpaid traffic-camera tickets, for introducing a bill to shield from public view the names of people who have such tickets.

Illustration by Chelsea Beck

Illustration by Chelsea Beck

It’s nothing new, of course, for state and local officials to criticize the press or restrict access to public information. In recent years, state lawmakers used Sunshine Week to introduce bills that would have made it more difficult to record police activity in plain view, and several government entities have sued their own citizens for filing FOI requests. But Trump is setting a new anti-press standard.

The administration has taken actions that marginalize mainstream journalists and kneecap their reporting: barring the Times, CNN, and others from a gaggle in Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office; declining to hold regular on-camera briefings; and calling on sycophantic news outlets at press conferences where Trump or his aides are expecting tough questions. My fear is that the actions and rhetoric will inspire state and local press persecution unlike anything we’ve seen at those levels.

Fueling that fear is the reality that state and local news organizations aren’t in a great position to push back. A Knight Foundation study released in March showed that roughly half of FOI experts believe access to information has gotten worse in the last four years, and nearly 90 percent believe access will get worse under Trump. And a Knight study released last year reported that 53 percent of US newspaper editors agreed that “news organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.” Sixty-five percent said the press is weaker than it was 10 years ago, with most of those editors citing economic pressures as the reason. Twenty-seven percent said they’d been unable to bring a case at their outlets because of the cost. As one editor put it: “The loss of . . . jobs and publishers’ declining profits mean there’s less opportunity to . . . sue for access to information.”

 

The effect, if unchallenged, is the erosion of the legal and cultural safeguards that state and local journalists depend on to inform their communities.

 

The implications of this retrenchment are significant because the state and local press have shaped American media law for decades by bringing critical cases—to unseal court documents and open meetings, for example. The taut economics of state and local journalism have jeopardized those efforts, and the journalism itself. Now add Trump’s epoch-making rhetoric and actions, which feed an environment that normalizes press restrictions, and the effect—if unchallenged—could be the erosion of the legal and cultural safeguards that state and local journalists depend on to inform their communities.

In the meantime, expect Trump’s attacks to continue. They rally the president’s supporters, who see liberal bias in the mainstream press, as Simon wrote recently in the Times, and they mean to curb the press’s credibility—all while distracting from stories like Russia’s role in the election. And so far many Republicans at all levels of government have been rewarded for loyalty to Trump’s base, which means the political logic of attacking the press may continue to appeal to state and local officials. Alternatively, Trump hasn’t exactly won best-of-show awards in his first 100 days, so that logic may change.

“Openness within government can depend on who is in charge,” says Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “That openness can change when new people take office. The tone can change, too.”

I hope I’m wrong about all of this. I do have some faith that state and local outlets’ ties to the communities they serve will insulate them, even if they don’t see subscription and readership growth. Banding together, too, will help them push back as they might not be able to do individually. They’d have to break down barriers and egos, and partner to protect the press as an institution. We may be weakened, but we’re not defenseless.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. He is a media law professor at the University of Georgia, with posts in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Law. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.