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Multiple news organizations have been banned from reporting on an important politician and events of international significance. That politician has threatened to sue journalists and others who say unfavorable things about him. Reporters from major media outlets who try to cover political events are trashed by that politician who questions their honesty and trustworthiness.
Who am I talking about? If you said the almost-deposed Turkish strongman Recep Tayyp Erdogan you’d be close. I’m actually talking about Donald Trump, but there are a lot of similarities between the Turkish president and our very own insecure GOP presidential candidate.
It’s no surprise that Trump isn’t a fan of the media. He has called journalists things like “scum”, “slime”, “dishonest”, and “sleaze”, among other things, on more than one occasion. But the reality is that Trump’s comments and actions have become much worse than a little Fourth Estate name-calling. If Trump has his way when it comes to journalists who are trying to cover him objectively, he could well turn into our own Erdogan.
If you’ve been following international news in recent weeks, you know that Erdogan, who recently survived an attempted overthrow and has been described as someone who tries to infringe freedom of expression, recently had 17 respected journalists jailed because he wasn’t sure whether they were responsible reporters or if they were part of the effort to oust him.
While Trump doesn’t have the ability to throw a reporter in jail — yet — a look at his actions in this campaign suggest that such a thing might not be off the table in a Trump administration.
Right now, the Trump campaign is denying press credentials to The Washington Post, The New York Times, POLITICO, The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, and many other large media outlets (except the ones who have been happy to carry his every utterance, regardless of their basis in fact, to boost ratings). Even if you don’t like the media, one has to wonder how many other news outlets will be banned before the campaign is over in November because Trump thinks they’re somehow jeopardizing his ability to garner support?
Last week, Trump staff had a Washington Post reporter physically escorted from a public event where Mike Pence was speaking because Trump revoked their press credentials to his events. Washington Post staffer Jose DelReal tried to enter the rally but was refused press credentials. He then tried to enter as a citizen, rather than as press, and was told he couldn’t attend if he had a cell phone. After putting his phone and computer into his car, he tried to enter through the public line again, when security guards called for sheriff’s deputies to pat him down and physically escort him away from the event.
So much for the First Amendment.
One thing strongmen and demagogues have in common … they hate the Fourth Estate because they can’t control them. All politicians try to manage their messages, but barring journalists from legitimate news events isn’t about staying on message; it’s about keeping voters from knowing all the facts about a candidate, especially the nuanced ones that most of us only have access to through reporters whose jobs are to cover candidates at events that aren’t programming opportunities like political conventions or phone in interviews with friendly news outlets.
It’s a tool that’s long been favored by demagogues of the worst kind — Hitler, comes to mind. We don’t even have to go back that far in history to find our own example of what happens when a paranoid leader decides to crack down on his media coverage in order to save his own hide. Richard Nixon tried his damnedest to control what was written about him and his administration. Can you say the Pentagon Papers? We all know how well that worked out for Nixon, and his how fear of and desperate need to control the press brought our country to a Constitutional crisis.
One voter recently said in an NPR interview that while he worries about whether Trump is fit for office, he has faith that the Republican Party and other elected officials will be able to advise him and rein him in. That’s a dangerous assumption to make, in light of the fact that party leaders tried and failed to do that for over a year. There is nothing in Trump’s history or his current actions to suggest that he will back off from his attempts to control the media for his own benefit.
At least during the Nixon years, we had reporters like the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were given the time and space to dig and investigate Nixon.
In a Trump presidency, there won’t be a “Woodstein” to do that kind of work, because we live in an era of quick hit 24/7 cable news media, where most of the stories that get attention are ones that are easy and require little time or thought.
Trump is a man used to running things his own way, and having people do his bidding whether they agree with him or not. He is not accustomed to any dissent and we know from his actions to date that he will go to whatever lengths possible to prevent journalists from telling us about the real Trump.
Given his actions so far, don’t be surprised if Trump bans many more new outlets between now and November, and finds more ways to keep journalists from his campaign events. He knows that’s the only way he can win the White House.