Trump Threatens Press Freedom? Ridiculous

The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial board wrote on Tuesday: “Trump administration continues to threaten a free press.” Did I miss the news about President Trump vowing to shut down CNN or the New York Times? Of course, that didn’t happen. So what is the editorial board talking about?

[A]t a campaign-rally style event on Saturday, Trump used the bully pulpit to try to bully the news media, which he said included some “very dishonest people.”

So what? A free press is not a press that is immune from criticism. On the contrary, disagreement is the corollary of freedom. And we all know that the press has monolithically opposed President Trump, accusing him of dishonesty and worse. As the editorial board did in its very next sentence:

But it was actually Trump who lied about the “failing New York Times” — subscriptions have surged since the election — claiming the paper apologized because its campaign forecasts were “so bad.” In fact, no apology was issued.

Is the New York Times failing? That is a matter of opinion, and the fact that “subscriptions have surged since the election” doesn’t answer the question. The Times has conducted one layoff after another, as declining revenues have forced personnel cuts. And this chart shows the New York Times share price from 2001 to the present:

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Is the Times failing? As I said, that is a matter of opinion, but it violates all norms of journalism for the editorial board to say that Trump “lied” in expressing that judgment.

Did the Times apologize for its coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign? That, too, is a judgment call. The paper’s publisher and editor sent a letter to its readers on November 13, 2016, that can be read as a mea culpa. That is how the New York Post saw it. (“The publisher’s letter to subscribers was part apology and part defense of its campaign coverage, but the key takeaway was a pledge to do better.”)

The Strib editorial board continues:

The administration ratcheted up the rhetoric with an even more chilling message the next day, when Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC that the White House had “looked at” potential changes to libel laws, echoing Trump’s irresponsible campaign pledge to “open up” laws to make it easier to sue news media organizations.

The editorial refers to the 1964 Supreme Court case of New York Times vs. Sullivan, under which (along with succeeding cases) the Supreme Court has established a regime that is probably more tolerant of reporters who publish falsehoods than any other country in the world. Does the Strib think that freedom of the press dates only from 1964? And is New York Times vs. Sullivan somehow above criticism?

The Strib editorialists probably have never been lied about in a newspaper, but that is an experience that Donald Trump and his family have gone through many times. Just a few weeks ago, Melania Trump settled a lawsuit which she brought against the Daily Mail in London. The Daily Mail reported a false rumor that Mrs. Trump was a prostitute early in her career as a model. The lawsuit was resolved with a cash payment by the Daily Mail and an apology:

“We accept that these allegations about Mrs. Trump are not true and we retract and withdraw them,” a lawyer for the British newspaper told a judge, Andrew Nicol, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. “We apologize to Mrs. Trump for any distress that our publication caused her. To settle Mrs. Trump’s two lawsuits against us, we have agreed to pay her damages and costs.”

Note that Mrs. Trump brought her case in the United Kingdom. If an American newspaper had published the same lie about her, in all probability New York Times vs. Sullivan would have prevented her from obtaining either damages or an apology. President Trump can perhaps be forgiven for considering this a sub-optimal legal arrangement. And does the Star Tribune think that England, with its stricter libel laws, doesn’t have a free press?

In any event, so what if President Trump disagrees with the current state of defamation law? Disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision doesn’t make you an enemy of free speech. Unless, of course, you disagree with the Citizens United case, which means that you want the government to be able to ban books and movies that criticize politicians. (Citizens United held that it was unconstitutional for the government to ban the showing of a movie that criticized Hillary Clinton.) Overturning Citizens United really would deal a body blow to free speech, but because that is a position favored by the Democratic Party–and in particular by Barack Obama–it doesn’t bother the Star Tribune’s editorial board.

The editorial continues:

In the introduction to its annual World Press Freedom Index report, Reporters Without Borders wrote that this year’s index “reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace, and strongmen are on the rise. We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms — especially in democracies.”

The U.S. should be a beacon of media freedom, but the country ranked a pathetic 43rd in the index, just below the African country Burkina Faso.

If you didn’t know better, you might infer that the U.S.’s “pathetic” rank of 43rd in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index was Donald Trump’s fault. So, how did the U.S. rank in the halcyon days of the Obama administration? In 2014, we ranked 46th. In 2015, we ranked 49th, three slots below Burkina Faso. I guess the Strib should congratulate President Trump on our improving press freedom rating.

Mostly, though, this is all silliness. The dominant liberal press has been bashing Republicans for as long as any of us can remember, and we finally have a Republican president who is willing to hit back at partisan journalists. What the press wants is not to be free–it is as free as anyone can imagine–but rather to be above criticism. To be able to throw punches without ever taking any. This is the Strib’s vision:

Americans, regardless of party, should reject Trump’s destructive attacks on journalists and instead unite behind freedom of the press.

That is completely wrong-headed. We give reporters the freedom to criticize government officials, and government officials (like the rest of us) have the reciprocal freedom to criticize journalists. Freedom of the press does not mean that reporters enjoy a unique immunity from disagreement. What we have today is a free-for-all, which is exactly what the Founders envisaged.

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