Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 10, 2017

The Propagandist and the Press

By David K. Shipler

            It might be time to recognize that President Trump’s tweets and ill-tempered outbursts about the press are not just scattered impulses but part of a foundation being carefully laid to stifle investigative reporting and robust expression by the country’s news organizations. And a large plurality of Americans will be with him, as he showed during the campaign, when roars of approval greeted his threatening vilification of reporters covering his rallies.
            Now, in office, he and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are in a position to test the limits of the First Amendment by various means, including legal actions that might be too expensive for any but the major news outlets to withstand. These could include extreme measures to silence government whistleblowers, aggressive demands on reporters to identify their confidential sources, and even moves to prosecute editors for publishing classified information. A Trump administration might make another attempt at prior restraint, which was repelled in 1971 by the Supreme Court, 6-3, when the Nixon administration tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War.
            Some responsible news organizations are already bracing for the onslaught and have redoubled their efforts to dig beneath the visible news. They now include on their websites instructions on how to use various encrypted communications to “share news tips with us confidentially,” as The Washington Post explains. The Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, for example, include links to such mechanisms as WhatsApp, Signal, SecureDrop, Strongbox, and Pidgin, with details on how much information about sender and receiver is retained by the providers. Even where the texts of messages are encrypted, some providers keep metadata—users’ phone numbers, email addresses, and time stamps—which could be subpoenaed by government to show that an official has been in contact with a reporter.  
These invitations to get in touch are useful, but they’re passive. The press also needs to assign beat reporters to regulatory agencies that have never received much day-in, day-out coverage. Getting into the weeds where mid-level officials reside, and finding what the columnist James Reston used to call “the man with the unhappy look on his face,” is essential for documenting the subtler shifts in rules and enforcement that are likely under Trump and the team of dismantlers he has assembled.
Newspapers have traditionally been the leaders in digging out the important stories, with broadcasters following behind, but with the print media’s finances suffering in the digital age, it’s far from certain that they’ll devote the labor to the task. (When I emailed a question on this to the Times Washington Bureau Chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, she didn’t reply, and there’s not much evidence in the paper’s news columns that it’s being done.)
On the other hand, the Trumpian era of bizarre chaos and “alternative facts” has promoted a hunger for reliable news, apparently, as seen by a spike in Times digital subscriptions, up a net 276,000 in the fourth quarter of 2016. It would be a perverse benefit if Trump’s antics saved serious journalism.
Trump is using several methods to lay the groundwork for whatever crackdown on the press he can get away with. First, he is stoking fear by exaggerating the terrorist threat using the autocrat’s customary method: I know what you don’t. Second, his acolytes are inventing terrorist attacks that didn’t happen and accusing the press of ignoring them. When an actual attack comes, as it surely will, Trump is likely to blame the courts and the press, plus Muslims generally and perhaps even Democrats—or the women who marched in pink pussy hats the day after his inauguration! Nobody scapegoats with more zeal than Trump.
Further, when news organizations expose wrongdoing in the national security arena, several steps could be taken. Most obviously, Trump’s Justice Department can use the tools left by President Obama, who prosecuted more government leakers than all previous presidents combined, and employed the unsavory 1917 Espionage Act to do it. Trump’s people might even persecute, harass, and fire whistleblowers in non-security areas such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Labor Department, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal whistleblower statute would protect them ultimately, but the hardship of defending themselves would be a deterrent to their talking to reporters in the first place.
Journalists themselves can be targets. The First Amendment right to freedom of the press does not protect them from a court order to identify their confidential sources in criminal cases, the Supreme Court has ruled. And while nearly all states have shield laws that provide various degrees of qualified privilege, no such statute exists at the federal level. So if Trump’s prosecutors decide to go after reporters for their anonymous sources, and if judges grant the motions (not all would in all circumstances), reporters must comply or risk jail time for contempt of court.
A next step could be taken into relatively uncharted territory if a federal prosecutor charged a reporter or editor for disclosing classified information. The effort might not succeed if the right combination of judges saw it as an assault on the First Amendment, but the threat alone would be chilling. Unlike Britain, the US has no official secrets act that makes such publication punishable. Still, in a time of fear and tension, whether rational or not, is it unthinkable that Trump would try individual prosecutions? Or even get the supine Republican-led Congress to pass such a statute? Even if the case did not survive in the courts, the litigation would take years—years of relative silence, except by only the bravest journalists.
Finally, the prior restraint that Nixon sought to prevent the Times and the Post from continuing to publish the Pentagon Papers failed only narrowly in a Supreme Court that inserted caveats and escape clauses into its ruling. There were alternate scenarios that might justify preventing publication in advance. Since editors routinely seek administration comment on stories disclosing secret information, officials are likely to know when something is coming and might try again to rewrite the case law by getting court approval of prior restraint.    
The president is creating, probably deliberately, an atmosphere conducive to anti-press action by government: There is no truth, no neutrality of viewpoint, only your own beliefs, which are truer than so-called facts. Trump discovered the broad appeal of the Big Lie when he peddled the fabrication that President Obama had probably been born outside the United States. Nearly half of Republicans believed the myth. Since then, “fake news,” mostly on Trump’s behalf, has been created on websites looking to make money as conspiracy zealots click on ads and spread the slanders. Since his election, his most persistent Big Lie (there are many smaller ones) has been that mainstream journalists are “the most dishonest people” and traffic in “fake news.” In other words, my fellow Americans, don’t believe a word they say.
It was probably Rush Limbaugh who first weaponized the “fake news” accusation by turning it around to delegitimize responsible newspapers and broadcasters. I heard him do it on his show weeks before Trump began to use it that way, and it built logically on Limbaugh’s longstanding attacks on what he calls “the drive-by media.” Trump appears unique, but much of his rhetoric is just an exaggerated version of what other Republicans have done before. Trump’s smears against federal judges, for instance, grow naturally out of conservative Republicans’ perennial condemnation of “activist” jurists—by which they’ve always meant liberals on the bench, not those conservatives who also stretch the law and Constitution to suit their ideologies.
Trump inherited the cynical national mood that these Republican calumnies helped foster. Therefore, his clumsiness masks a grander scheme, as Adam Gopnik writes in the current New Yorker:

“Some choose to find comfort in the belief that the incompetence will undermine the anti-Americanism. Don’t bet on it. Autocratic regimes with a demagogic bent are nearly always inefficient, because they cannot create and extend the network of delegated trust that is essential to making any organization work smoothly. The chaos is characteristic. Whether by instinct or by intention, it benefits the regime, whose goal is to create an overwhelming feeling of shared helplessness in the population at large.”


  1. Excellent article, Dave. Thank you!

    I've been hoping Trump's attacks on facts would prompt us to return to old-fashioned in-depth investigative reporting. I said so to a couple of friends just this afternoon. I've also been hoping our country would soon discover its mistake in electing Trump, making this presidency a "teaching moment" that would produce a dramatic shift in thinking on topics ranging from discrimination to education to healthcare. Perhaps we are like the adolescent having to learn lessons the hard way.

    My hopes are mere dreams, perhaps, but as Emily Dickinson writes:

    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul,
    And sings the tune without the words,
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
    And on the strangest sea;
    Yet, never, in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.

    Many people are donating to worthy causes like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Perhaps it's time to add The New York Times to the list.

  2. I keep saying this is all so depressing - and it just keeps on being more depressing! I've also said, several times, I feel like I'm back in pre-War Germany when many decent people felt helpless to stop that hideous, hateful "machine" from crushing Jews, much of Europe and ultimately Germany itself. They felt helpless because they were helpless! - and I am feeling very much the same thing with THUMPF! I come back to my comment: It's depressing. And that's so sad - for the USA. REALLY sad.
    Thank you, Dave - for laying out this issue so clearly. God knows it's important!

  3. Dave,

    I think all of your readers should arrange to take out Key Man insurance on you - we need the in depth clear thinking about the Trump tsunami-level turbulence confounding us and our institutions!

    Recently I’ve been thinking more and more about the window of history I have been privileged to witness during my life, and recognize that the kaleidoscope of change is accelerating before our very eyes. You have written your whole life about events and change and their intended and unintended consequences. Did you ever feel you were the right person with the right skills in the right place at the right time to capture and communicate their essence for others? Do you feel that way now?

    I have come to believe energy is actually transferred between/among people in what some call prayer; others, positive thinking; etc. For we are each energy with a characteristic wave length. Ego-driven self-centered agendas, needs, and fears generate dense heavy energy. When we step away from them and concern ourselves with the wellbeing of others we generate a lighter energy, a differential as it were that functions like a vacuum pulling/attracting good things for others. Accordingly, I believe we need to be planful as we respond to Trump. If we respond with high levels of stress, rage, anger, even violence we will be adding our dark dense energy to his. On the other hand if we remember to breathe, focus, and think through our passions we will create a positive differential for the better.

    Dave, your voice rings clearly through the debilitating miasma of Trump’s false news and his ignorance of our Constitution, balance of government, body of laws and precedents, and democratic institutions. The facts and opinions you share in your Report are a beacon that increases the clarity and focus of your readers’ thinking.

    As a reader I thank you and hope you have ways to replenish your resolve and faith so you can continue. I offer my thoughts and prayers for your wellbeing. May your creative juices and courage continue to flow!