Wednesday 24th May, 2017
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In defense of free speech

In defense of free speech

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.

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