The White House’s anti-press rhetoric has caused concern. No doubt US President Donald Trump’s tactic to muzzle the media works for dictatorships. Will it work in the United States? Time will tell …
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: In just nineteen months of politicization, Donald Trump has developed a highly confrontational style. Having defeated his republican opponents in the primaries, and then his democratic challenger in November's elections, he needs his next foe. In his first few days in the White House, the President and his advisers took direct aim at the media.
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “And the reason you're my first stop is that is as you know I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Narration: A few hours later after Trump’s speech in the headquarters of the CIA, it was press secretary Sean Spicer’s turn.
SOUNDBITE [English] Sean Spicer, Press Secretary of White House: “They owe the president an apology for the way that that thing was. There were just literally blatant factual errors and it's unacceptable to see that kind of reporting or so-called reporting, that is literally the epitome of fake news.”
Narration: These hassles come after a long presidential campaign in which Trump attacked the media as an institution "rigged" against him.
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “The press has created a rigged system and poisoned the mind of so many of our voters. They have rigged it from the beginning by telling totally false stories most recently about phoney allegations where I have been under constant attack. “
Narration: Although this is not the first time a US president goes after the media, the current attack on the media seems to be unprecedented. Armed with a new way to communicate directly to the public, the new administration is trying to undermine the role of the press as a watchdog on government and as the main source of information for political news. But how come a democratically elected president treats the media as his primary foe and contributes to the deterioration of media freedom?
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “No not you, your organization's terrible. Your organization's terrible, let's go. Quiet. Go ahead.”
Narration: Faced with unflattering campaign coverage, Trump pledged to weaken U.S.libellaws to make it easier to sue news outlets.
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. They have become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. When the media lies to people, I will never ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that they don't get away with it.”
Narration: Although Trump has long criticized news coverage and sparred with reporters who question him, he had not yet labeled the fourth estate as being an enemy of the country. On February 17th, 2017, however, he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.”
The advantages of having an enemy are well-known. In George Orwell’s novel "1984", the masses engage in a daily mandatory ritual, the "Two Minutes of Hate," during which their anger is zealously stoked against the foe of the moment. Dictators and autocrats have always practiced the art of drumming up hatred toward others with great success. Have strong authoritarian tendencies, Trump knows that enemies can help him fire up the base, rally the crowds and shift responsibility. Republican Senator John McCain has recently reacted to President Donald Trump’s hostile handling of the media, warning “That’s how dictators get started.”
SOUNDBITE [English] John McCian, US Senator: “If you wanna preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversary press and without it I afraid we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Slavoj Žižek, Philosopher: “Look ... take just an obvious example Donald Trump. I think that he's approaching the point where you even cannot do a parody of him. Imagine if somebody were to do so talking like Donald Trump ten years ago, everybody would've thought, "this is a parody and a parody of which would never have been true."”
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
SOUNDBITE [English] Jimmy Fallon, NBC Comedian: “Welcome ... welcome ... thank me ... thank me ... and buckle up because I'm coming in hot, this is going to be a crazy one. Daddy came to play. First of all, you're all fake news. I hate you very much. And thank you for being here.
First question ... no... next. But Mr. President no one has even asked a question ... doesn't matter ... no ... next ... Mr. President, You've been in office for just four weeks ... and yetwe've made so much progress, if you ask any American they will say I've managed to make the last four weeks feel like four years ... our more weeks... our more weeks.” ..
Narration: Perhaps, Trump’s war isn’t with the media. Trump lives off media attention and delights in press coverage. His war is with facts. And it’s there that his tactical runs-in with the press begin to make sense. Delegitimizing the media is important to Trump because delegitimizing certain facts is important to Trump. Diminishing or destroying the legitimacy, prestige, or authority of the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a large number of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
SOUNDBITE [German] Frank Ueberall, Head, German Association of Journalists: “Well, Donald Trump sometimes resembles a certain comic character with the same name. The problem is effectively, that he keeps making untruths or semi-truths public and then acts like it is common knowledge. But whoever looks closely at the list, which has now been published here in Germany as well, realizes that it is complete nonsense.”
Narration: Trying to confuse the public so that they will not believe inconvenient truths; that seems to be the name of the game. It also gives the new administration a convenient scapegoat for their continued struggles with public opinion, and their potential future struggles with reality.
SOUNDBITE [English] Abby Martin, Producer of The Empire File: “They purposely muddy the water, poison the well to make people believe all this fake stuff and basically that's what Mr. Trump wants. I don't think that they're completely missing the point here. The point is Trump tapped into this kind of conspiracy culture like no one else has ever.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Phil Elliott from Time Magazin: “They are breaking every norm they can think of, including picking fights with the press on a daily basis. And spending so much of their time trying to manage how the world sees them, instead of actually doing the governing and being judged on that.”
Narration: But the stakes are high in what Trump proudly calls his "running war with the media". By trying to silence and erase citizens who don't support his message and policies, freedom of information, speech and the press, and above all democracy will fall victim to this war.
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “Get out of here ... Get out of here ... Get him out ...Get him out ... Troublemaker ... Get him out of here ...”
Narration: On February 16, 2017 and in his first press conference as, Donald Trump repeatedly accused journalists of being hostile and dishonest in their reporting on his first month in office, ignoring mainstream media reporters and only taking questions from those working for conservative news outlets.
SOUNDBITE [English] Donald Trump, US President: “I want to find a friendly reporter ... Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead ...Go ahead.”
Narration: Before the election, many political experts had cautioned that Trump, as president, would endanger liberty, dismantling democracy slowly but steadily.
SOUNDBITE [English] Klaus Brinkbaeumer, Editor-in-Chief, Der Spiegel: “No, Der Spiegel does not want to provoke anybody. We want to show what this is about, it's about democracy, it's about freedom, and it’s about freedom of press, freedom of justice and all that is seriously endangered.”
SOUNDBITE [French] Christophe Deloire, Director, Reporters without Borders: “Donald Trump’s attitude towards the media is extremely worrying, of course for the United States, for the freedom of press in that country. He never stops, by his words, on Twitter, to be violent against journalists and we can already see a form of radicalization against the journalists that is worrisome, but it’s even more troubling for the rest of the world, since he gives a truly bad example.”
VOX POP [English] Protester against US Presidency: “We want to plan a funeral on honor of presidency. every single one of these presidents you see passing before you ... they all had problems but nothing like what we're seeing in this presidency or from this administration.”
Narration: Now, the White House’s anti-press rhetoric has caused concern. No doubt Trump’s tactic to muzzle the media works for dictatorships. Will it work in the United States? Time will tell …