On April 16, 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an HFPA grantee, published a report on the Trump administration’s attacks on the press and the resulting attenuation of trust in the Fourth Estate. The report is written by Len Downie, Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and it includes interviews with over 40 journalists, media law experts, academics, and administration officials. Downie had also written a critical report in 2013 of the Obama administration, which had done its share of aggressive prosecution of leakers and investigation of the journalists that reported those leaks.
All of Trump's assaults on journalism are chronicled in the comprehensive report which is divided into sections. Downie reports on the denigrating of journalists by Trump who has called them “the enemy of the people,” “fake news,” “dishonest,” “corrupt,” “low-life reporters,” “human scum,” “bad people” and “some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet,” with the subsequent amplification of his disinformation and propaganda by alt-right media. He writes about the attacks on media owners such as Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post whose coverage is a frequent target of Trump’s ire, and the attempt to stop the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, which is the parent company of another of Trump’s perceived enemies, CNN. Trump’s calling for the licenses of CNN and NBC to be revoked and threatening boycotts and legal action against them and demanding their news executives be fired is also recorded. So is the harassment of journalists at US borders with the searching and confiscation of their phones and the monitoring of their movements in a secret database. Also explained is how the President demanded changes in libel law so he could sue media companies, as well as the prosecution of confidential sources under the Espionage Act as an end-run around the First Amendment, the latter started under George W. Bush’s administration and escalated under Barack Obama’s.
The report mentions the 60 Minutes reporter, Lesley Stahl, telling the following story in 2018 at a Deadline Club awards dinner in New York City where she was interviewed by PBS Newshour anchor Judy Woodruff. She told Woodruff she was at Trump Tower for an interview with Trump in July 2016, right after he won the Republican nomination. Off-camera, before the interview started and when he started a rant about the press, Stahl said to him, “You know, this is getting tired. Why are you doing it over and over? It’s boring and it’s time to end that. You know you’ve won. Why do you keep hammering like this?” His answer was: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write your negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Downie cites a Pew Research Center study that says “Trump’s attacks have had the most success in eroding the credibility of the American press among his many millions of supporters.”
The Post’s Fact Checker database chronicles 18,000 false or misleading claims by Trump since he took office till April 2, 2020. The coronavirus category has already had more than 350 such claims.
The report talks about how in 2019, Trump ended all daily briefings. The latest press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, departed her post after a few months, never having held a single one. “I told her not to bother,” Trump tweeted about [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders [the previous press secretary] on January 22, 2019. “The word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!”
With no access to press briefings, reporters covering the Trump administration have been forced to rely on administration sources who insist on being anonymous for fear of reprisal. The Washington Post’s State correspondent told Downie that whatever briefings the reporters managed to get from administration officials were not on the record “90% of the time.” According to Downie, that left the reporters’ stories open to criticism because they could not cite their sources.
Trump has attacked the media on Twitter in nearly 1,900 tweets according to a database of the US Press Freedom Tracker, cited by Downie. 400 of them targeted specific journalists, some of whom reported an escalation of hate mail. Several people have been arrested for violence against journalists brought about by Trump’s vitriol, most notably the man who sent pipe bombs to CNN in New York and to some Democratic politicians. And the credentials of two White House correspondents were revoked by the White House when Trump did not like their questions – CNN’s Jim Acosta and Playboy’s Brian Karem. The reporters had to go to court to get them reinstated.
Trump’s assaults on the press have been mirrored by authoritarian leaders around the world who have used the term ‘fake news’ as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom. Downie writes, “Many of them have praised Trump’s rhetoric as encouragement ... Between January 2017 and May 2019, at least 26 countries have enacted or introduced laws and government rules restricting online media and journalistic access in the name of fake news ... Leaders of Poland, Hungary, Turkey, China, Philippines, and Cambodia are among those cracking down on journalists who have cited the example of Trump and “fake news,” often after meeting with and being praised by him.”
Most egregious of all, when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the behest of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (whose role in the assassination was confirmed by the CIA), Trump took no action. He continued normal dealings with the country in pursuit of a weapons deal.
The news media does not escape criticism either. The report calls out the blurring of reportage and opinion in the mainstream media. Downie points to the newspaper reporters who are paid to appear as guests on cable news shows, confusing viewers who then see bias in their explanations of the news.
At the end of the report are several recommendations by CPJ to the Trump administration which were approved by Downie, including affirming the role of a free press in a democracy, resuming the daily press briefings, ensuring that equal access for all is given to the White House without fear of punishment for perceived negative coverage, speaking on the record to reporters, complying promptly with FOIA requests, and stopping the practice of bringing espionage charges against news sources who leak classified information to the press.
In a high-level briefing with Len Downie, set up by the CPJ via teleconference for its supporters on April 23, 2020, Downie was asked about what surprised him the most in his findings.
He replied that he was surprised at the extent to which journalists’ sources of information were being prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act which was actually enacted to prevent spying during WWI and had nothing to do with journalism. He also mentioned the harassment of journalists coming across the borders from reporting abroad by customs people.
“But most importantly,” he said, “I was very concerned about and surprised by the extent to which the President's attacks in the press had convinced a large number of his supporters, millions and millions of Americans, that the facts that are being presented to them by the press are not true. And that this has exacerbated a very deep gap in the United States in a dangerous way because there are millions of Americans who simply are not believing facts that they should be believing. And now, during this COVID-19 crisis, this is worse than ever because polls are showing that again large numbers of the President's supporters, in particular, initially did not believe that COVID-19 was a serious issue when the President was saying it wasn't serious. And today are still not believing an awful lot of the facts that they see in the media and instead of believing things that President says that are simply not true.”
On a hopeful note he concluded, “Being popular, it's not something that should be important for the press to be, but at the same time, the approval rating of the press has actually gone up during this period. So, it does show in this divided country, there are people who are understanding this important role of the press and want it to exist. We have always traditionally seen strong support for the accountability role of the press too, and that's part of what this is. It's holding the government, not just the president, but all the government accountable for its actions.”