Trump's Ever More Powerful Weapons Against Journalism
Shortly after five staffers at the Capital Gazette were gunned down in their Annapolis, Md., office, President Donald Trump refused a request from the city’s mayor, Gavin Buckley, to lower American flags on federal property to half-staff. The White House eventually reversed its decision, but the episode underscores the contempt that this administration holds for the press.
Last month, after spending the better part of two years railing against purveyors of “fake news,” the president called the media the “enemy of the American people.” Now the Department of Homeland Security is reportedly compiling a database of journalists, editors, correspondents and bloggers to identify the leading voices in their respective fields.
According to an April 5 report in Bloomberg Government, DHS was searching for a contractor to help it monitor more than 290,000 global news sources in over 100 languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Russian, all of which will be translated to English in real time. These outlets would include newspapers and magazines, television and radio, podcasts and social media.
“The DHS request says the selected vendor will set up an online ‘media influence database’ giving users the ability to browse based on location, beat, and type of influence,” Bloomberg’s Cary O’Reilly reveals. The database would include, “[f]or each influencer found, present contact details and any other information that could be relevant, including publications this influencer writes for, and an overview of the previous coverage published by the media influencer.”
If the project sounds like a First Amendment violation waiting to happen, that’s because it is. While DHS insists that the database will “protect and enhance the resilience of the nation’s physical and cyberinfrastructure,” perhaps against foreign interference in future elections, the potential for censorship and other abuses of power is virtually limitless.
“Unfortunately, increasing government encroachment on the freedom of the press is the sinister backdrop to all of this,” writes Forbes’ Michelle Fabio. “Freedom House, which has monitored the status of the press for nearly 40 years, recently concluded that global media freedom has reached its lowest level in the past 13 years.”
The independent watchdog blames “crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian countries like Russia and China,” but it also cites “new threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies”—Trump chief among them.
“No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office,” reads Freedom House’s 2017 report. “He has repeatedly ridiculed reporters. … Such comments suggest a hostility toward the fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, especially the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions—as opposed to the government holding the media to account.”
Barack Obama’s eight years in office were marked by an overt hostility toward leakers and whistleblowers; Leonard Downie’s report for the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2013 called the White House’s treatment of the press “the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in the Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate.”
The DHS’ latest venture reveals where disdain for journalists can lead, and the extent to which it can be weaponized.