Last week, Donald Trump revoked all press credentials from The Washington Post. The presumptive nominee’s penchant for punishing unfriendly reporters by pulling their press access to his campaign events gives us serious pause.
In addition to The Washington Post, Trump’s campaign has now pulled credentials from, among others, Politico, the National Review, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Last year when the Des Moines Register published an unflattering editorial about him, Trump’s campaign responded in kind: "We're not issuing credentials to anyone from The Des Moines Register based on the editorial that they wrote earlier in the week.”
Trump has even gone so far as to promise opening up libel laws. "One of the things I'm going to do if I win,” he stated in February, “… 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.”
This idea is unlikely to be successful, as it requires overturning a half-century of legal precedent. Perhaps sensing the difficulty here, Trump seems to have settled on merely revoking press credentials from perceived critics.
For its part, the Trump campaign claims their candidate is the victim. They cite an admittedly misleading headline published online by The Washington Post, which reads, "Donald Trump Suggests President Obama Was Involved With Orlando Shooting." The title has since been changed to: “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting." The campaign, however, is going beyond the headline, claiming that the Post — which boasts some 62 Pulitzer prizes — has “no journalistic integrity.” Perhaps the newspaper should consider suing for libel.
Given these facts, the American Society of News Editors rightly spoke out this week condemning Trump’s new position toward the Post, calling it “an unprecedented dismissal of the First Amendment freedoms essential to our democracy.” The statement continues: “the public is best served when a fearless, unfettered and independent press is present at all campaign events, speeches and political forums.”
To be fair, stick-and-carrot incentives are not novel in the world of politics and journalism. Nearly eight years ago it was then-Sen. Barack Obama who made headlines for revoking access to his press plane. Obama’s team nixed three reporters from the travel corps, all of whom hailed from papers that had endorsed his opponent, Sen. John McCain; nor did the president’s administration make good on its promise of being the “most open and transparent in history.”
Anyone seeking to lead the free world should be willing to do more than merely tolerate the scrutiny that democracy demands; they should vigorously champion it both at home and abroad. The United States must remain an example to other nations where the press is still far from free and the public square is too often censored shut.
Nelson Mandela, then a presidential candidate in South Africa, addressed the International Press Institute in Cape Town after the fall of the oppressive apartheid regime.
“A critical, independent, and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy,” Mandela said. “I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.”
Our presidential contenders should resist treading on freedoms that Americans have come to take for granted lest those liberties begin to erode. When viewed in the proper context, a free press is not an enemy to quash but a tool that, in the words of Mandela, can help those who would govern see actions and omissions that don’t quite “measure up” to our nation’s “democratic values.”