Politicians all over the world love the news media only when it helps to advance their personal and political agenda. But, the love evaporates when the news media does its job of scrutinizing public officials and exposing falsehood and propaganda – common tools employed by public officials as they constantly seek to manipulate the public.
It is therefore not surprising that many politicians have little or no praise for the press especially when they are caught doing the wrong thing. Consequently, some politicians become overly sensitive to criticism from the media. Former US president, Richard Nixon has the infamous honor of being a media hater during his presidency that was doomed ultimately by two investigative reporters at the Washington Post – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
In what probably tops the Nixonian levels of media bashing, the Republican Party nominee in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump can rightly claim the infamy of the most abrasive assailant of the media among recent major party presidential candidates. His recent outbursts against news media professionals is yet another demonstration of the tension that continues to exist between the fourth estate and politicians. In public glare before the cameras at a press conference in New York last week, Trump pointed directly at ABC News reporter Tom Llamas and called him “a sleaze” and concluded that the political press is “unbelievably dishonest.”
At the beginning of his presidential race last year, Trump called Fox News host Megyn Kelly “a bimbo.” He dubbed NBC’s Katy Tur, “little Katy, third-rate journalist.” Reporters from the New York Times, Politico, CNN and elsewhere have received harsh words from the businessman- turned politician. In his view the American press is “dishonest,” “disgusting,” “slime” and “scum,” calling political reporters the worst types of human beings on earth.
The latest tirade against the media came as many news sources led by the Washington Post questioned the authenticity of Trump’s claims about raising $6million dollars for veterans on the day that he boycotted a Fox News presidential television debate because the network refused his request to remove debate moderator Megyn Kelly, a journalist he viewed as hostile to him in a previous debate. The Republican Party candidate’s account of how much money was raised and who benefited from the fundraiser did not match reality, prompting some veterans and journalists to call him out for inaccuracies, pandering, and using veterans to advance his politics. Like a petulant child, Trump, the quintessential narcissist is averse to criticism and so takes delight in discrediting anyone who calls attention to his lies, his contradictions, his lack of transparency and the less seemly aspects of his history. Little wonder, he has promised to open up libel laws in the country to make it easier to sue journalists and target journalists who question those who are uncomfortable with truth.
So what is the future of free speech and media freedom in a possible Trump presidency? It is anyone’s guess. Daily Mail reporter David Martosko who was at the testy press conference noted that Trump had set a new bar for the press corps, “calling us losers to our faces” and wanted to know if this was “what it’s going to be like if we’re covering you as president?” “Yes, it’s going to be like this,” Trump said.
What is so ironic in the rise of Donald Trump is that many Americans and other pundits have accused the media of providing unprecedented platform for the reality television star to rise to stardom. The media is also accused of not doing enough to fact-check the politician in some of the claims and promises he makes at campaign rallies and presidential debates. In fact, throughout the primary season, it is believed that Trump himself got free publicity from different media outlets estimated at about $2billion while his other 16 opponents spent so much in campaign ads. He relished the use of Twitter and formed the habit of calling on major television shows to project his views to the extent that his rivals complained that the media was addicted to Donald. Almost every newsroom monitored his tweeter page to learn of his latest tantrum and attack on political opponents. His unconventional politics lent itself to oddity - an essential ingredient of news. In fact, many network executives welcomed the outlandish comments he made on campaign trail because it boosted the ratings of the networks. To Trump’s credit, a record number of viewers tuned to watch the Republican debates at very high levels. The entertainment value he brought to the entire election cycle cannot be denied regardless of the accuracy, consistency, and truth of what comes out from his mouth at different hours of the day.
While Trump enjoyed the freedom to say whatever he chooses including third grade personal insults at opponents and whining, he gets angry at reporters when they express their views or question his views. It is difficult to understand such intolerance especially coming from someone who presents himself for a public office. It is understandable that Donald Trump cannot be challenged within the Trump empire- The Trump Organization. But United States is not a fiefdom; it is not North Korea whose leader Trump publicly admires; it is a democratic republic in which leaders must be servants of the people first and foremost. Trump needs to show an understanding of the role of a free press in a free society and be willing to subject himself to democratic accountability. This is an important test and transition necessary for Trump if he hopes to make it to the White House.
Arguably, the United States has the greatest free speech protection in the world and to have a major political party candidate aspire to change that tradition is scary and portends danger for the future of democracy. What moral justification will be left for United States to preach to undemocratic countries to embrace free speech and media freedom? Should Trump’s vision of transparency and authoritarianism prevail, the world would suffer tremendous set back in the struggle to end secrecy in government and public affairs.