Freedom of the press has taken a beating over the past seven years and couple of months or so, and at the moment it doesn’t seem likely to fare any better over the next four years.
The Democratic Party has long shown a censorious streak, with both self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreeing that the country must overturn the hated Citizens United decision that ruled the government can’t stop the airing of an anti-Clinton documentary, and academia writing Orwellian speech codes and carving out “safe spaces” from the free exchange of ideas, and the more robust activists calling for “some muscle” to expel the press the public square, and a news and media culture that shames anyone who expresses certain proscribed opinions. By now we’re used to it, and know from history that it comes as a necessary component of any admittedly socialist movement that would quash a number of other human rights, but until this year we’ve never heard a Republican candidate and self-described conservative openly boasting that if elected president he would use the powers of the presidency to punish his press critics.
That has happened, though, thanks to the always boastful self-proclaimed billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show-and-scam-university mogul Donald J. Trump, who is somehow at the moment the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Speaking to a typically large and adoring crowd in Texas, Trump denounced entire media as the “most dishonest people I ever met,” sneered at The New York Times as a “failing newspaper” and “most dishonest media outlets I’ve ever seen in my life,” and despite expressing his respect for Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos he said that “he wants political influence so that Amazon will benefit from it,” which is all standard Republican stump fare, and all fair enough, but of course he went further. Expounding on his seemingly impromptu rant, Trump said, “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.” After the crowd lustily cheered on this promise of retribution against press outlets for exercising their First Amendment right to publish something that did not serve the interests of Trump, he added that “One of the things I’m going to do, and this is only going to make it tougher for me, and I’ve never said this before, but one of things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope I do and we’re certainly leading, is I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws.”
All the Trump apologists who magically appear in the comments section below any article critical of their knight-in-white-armor-and-thin-and-orange-skin will note that the Times and Post are indeed awful publications, which we’ve already acknowledge is standard Republican stump fare and fair enough, and they’ll note how censorious the Democrats are, which is true but irrelevant, and some will even venture some criticisms of the Sullivan v. New York Times decision that has since 1964 defined the wide-open standards of public discourse, although any attempt to explain how a press is still free so long as it meets Trump’s notions of fairness and accuracy and positivity are obviously wrong. What matters, though, and what no Trump apologist can deny, is that their tough-talking truth-telling hero is loudly and unabashedly threatening that if elected his press critics are going to have problems, such problems. Their heroic Trump may have already freed the land from those social constraints of “political correctness” that said you couldn’t discuss illegal immigration or Islam or mock the handicapped or disparage American servicemen who endured wartime captivity or brag about all the married babes you’ve bagged,
With a darker shade of spray-tan and a pair of mirrored aviator glasses on him we could easily see Trump issuing the same sort of threat in that fictional banana republic that Woody Allen created for “Bananas,” but it’s harder to imagine this sort of thing happening in America. Previous presidents have had their legal confrontations with the press, but in the end they always accepted the rulings made by the Supreme Court according to plain understanding of the First Amendment, and all the Democrats are striving to overrule a Supreme Court ruling similarly rendered so that they can exercise prior restraint on any documentaries or articles or artworks critical of Hillary Clinton, but at least they have the decency to pretend that it’s because of those awful Koch brothers and some vast right-wing conspiracy that’s supposedly intent on curtailing free speech. Trump comes right out and says he wants to use the government to silence his critics, eliciting great cheers from his adoring crowds, and after his poll numbers improve we expect Clinton will figure that she will soon make the same appalling promise to her adoring crowds.
Although we’re not fans of The New York Times, despite having several good friends there long argued with, nor The Washington Post, where we don’t know anybody, we do remain great fans of the idea that people should be able to publish whatever they have to say regardless of whether the current occupant of the White House likes it or not. We’ve long availed ourselves of this right, especially through the past seven years and a couple of months or so, and we intend to continue doing so for as long as almighty God, and not the almighty government, grants us. It won’t just be The New York Times and The Washington Post that have problems, such problems in the coming years, regardless of how this implausible election turns out, but one way or another we’ll persist in speaking our minds. If Trump wants to sue us, as is his wont, well, go right ahead, but he and all his high-priced lawyers should know that we possess nothing he can take from us that is so precious as our God-given right to say that he’s a bullying blowhard con artist who will do this country do no good.
— Bud Norman