Though Donald Trump’s young presidency has seen him walk back some brash campaign promises into more pragmatic efforts, he’s kept the press squarely in his crosshairs.
Now, his advisers have begun to play offense, floating punishment for perceived negative reporting. Last weekend, chief of staff Reince Priebus told ABC that the administration has “looked into” possible changes to libel laws, echoing his boss’ widely repeated campaign promises – this time, regarding allegations linking Trump aides to Russia.
Newspapers and other media outlets exist to promote news and information that is good, bad and indifferent to people of all geographic areas and political persuasions.
As Bob Woodward, whose reporting broke the Watergate scandal, eloquently said at last week’s White House Correspondents Dinner: “Our reporting needs to get both fact and tones right. The effort today to get the best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Whatever the climate, whether the media is revered or reviled, we should and must persist, and I believe we will. Any relaxation by the press will be extremely costly to democracy.”
Enacting Trump’s proposal, however, may be even more difficult than actually proving libel to a judge.
For one, there is no federal statute criminalizing libel, meaning the matter is covered by a patchwork of different state laws. Criminal court cases require perceived libel victims to prove falsehood, actual harm and lack of efforts to prove the statement’s truthfulness — and, in the case of public figures like the president, intent to harm, or actual malice.
Plus, there’s this thing called the Constitution. Trump has professed his deep love for the cornerstone document in our democracy, yet he’s apparently failed to process that its First Amendment extends vast protections to the press he’s assailed.
During the campaign, Trump had a habit, one that galled reporters and editors, of trumpeting news stories and editorials critical of Hillary Clinton on a near daily basis.
And when Trump didn’t like news coverage or an editorial about himself? He yanked press credentials and had crowds at his rallies shower reporters and photographers with jeers. From the podium, he hypocritically denigrated the very profession of the journalists who wrote those pieces he sought to use to his own advantage.
Journalism isn’t going to be all rainbows and butterflies, Mr. President.
The press will continue performing its job – no, responsibility – of ensuring a free, vibrant exchange of ideas in the media. Journalists have been doing that for hundreds of years in this country, and no misguided threats will slow their pursuit of truth, accountability and information on behalf of the American public.