“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
From the press, we hear about what the leaders of our country are doing, how crime is solved, and what is happening in our community and around the world. We also learn about injustices that need to be remedied and corruption that needs to be stopped. In response to those articles, we can demand that individuals be prosecuted, laws enacted, or changes made.
Now imagine this country without a free press. “We the people” will only be told what those in power want us to hear. The stories we read online or see on television may or may not be true. But we will never know one from the other. What is worse, we may not even hear what is happening. Injustice will be left unremedied and corruption unchecked. In short, we will no longer be citizens of a democracy but subjects of an autocracy.
The control of information is one of the first actions undertaken by dictators. This is achieved through state ownership or intimidation. For example, Adolph Hitler rose to power with the help of the press controlled by the Nazis, either by ownership or influence. The Propaganda Ministry issued guidelines about what stories could be printed and how to report the news and dispensed daily directives to control the news and editorials.
After a coup failed against him, Hugo Chavez expanded state media and closed independent outlets in consolidating his power in Venezuela. As a result, when anti-government protestors clogged the streets and 20 people were killed, the Venezuelan media was silent, and the Venezuelan people knew nothing about it.
Likewise, the Turkish people knew nothing about what caused their currency to tumble in value because allies or relatives of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, own most of the press. Intimidation is also at work in Turkey where “critical journalists have been jailed, fined or fired” with some fleeing the country. Erdoğan calls journalists “terrorists,” voices conspiracy theories, and takes criticism personally. The end result: his government “has “chipped away at [the free press], bit by bit.”
In an article written shortly after the last presidential election, Foreign Policy warned that one of the ways to tell if the President is a dictator is the control of information. This can be accomplished in four ways: (1) expanding libel laws to facilitate suit against the press; (2) using the FCC to silence critical media outlets; (3) pursuing whistleblowers and leakers in the government, and (4) denying access to news organizations.
In each of the four ways, President Trump has acted to control information in this country:
- He has twice called on Congress in 2018 to change libel laws so that he could sue authors who had written books critical of him. The first was Michael Wolfe, author of “Fire & Fury; the second, Bob Woodward, an associate editor at the Washington Post, who with Carl Bernstein won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Watergate scandal, and author of “Fear.”
- When NBC News issued a report that President Trump was seeking a tenfold increase in our nuclear arsenal, he claimed it was false and tweeted ““With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their [FCC] License?” In its story, NBC explained the basis for the statement, which was President Trump pointing to a chart that indicated a tenfold increase, and included President Trump’s tweet contesting the statement.
- After behind-the-scenes comments at the White House were made public, President Trump vowed to track the leakers down and make them “pay a big price,” calling them “traitors and cowards.” He also made an unusual request of the U.S. Attorney General, asking his office to investigate the leaks despite there being no hint of an illegal act.
- President Trump has sought to revoke the press credentials, ban reporters from official events, and generally retaliate against reporters who question him in a way he finds objectionable. Officials in his administration banned a CNN reporter because they didn’t like the way she questioned the president.
He hasn’t stopped there. He’s taken a page from Erdoğan’s playbook, but instead of calling the press “terrorists,” President Trump called them “the true Enemy of the People.” And he blames the media for the violence in this country and derides them for disseminating “fake news.” Lesley Stahl, a correspondent for 60 Minutes said that President Trump admitted that he attacks journalists “to discredit [them] all and demean [them] all, so when [they] write negative stories about me no one will believe [them].” While cameras were not rolling at the time that this statement was made, President Trump has not denied it.
This strategy makes sense in light of President Trump’s continual stream of false and misleading claims, which the press routinely uncovers. After all, if the public can be made to believe that the press is lying, then they will believe that the President is telling the truth.
So what are “we, the people,” to do to ensure that we know what is really happening in our country? First, check the facts for yourself. Take a look at my blog posts, Don’t Just Show Up – Vote Informed! and Let the Mudsorting Begin!
Second, defend the freedom of the press, protest censorship in any form, and be vigilant in watching our country’s leaders. This is a right that we cannot afford to lose.
 Mark Van Vught, Ph.D., 7 steps to Becoming a Dictator, Psychology Today, February 5, 2017, § 6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/naturally-selected/201702/7-steps-becoming-dictator.
 The Press in the Third Reich: Establishing Control of the Press, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-press-in-the-third-reich.
 Katelyn Fossett, Government Made the Media into Its Most Powerful Ally, Foreign Policy, March 11, 2014, https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/03/11/how-the-venezuelan-government-made-the-media-into-its-most-powerful-ally/.
 Zia Wiese, How Did Things Get So Bad for Turkey’s Journalists: The free press is always a casualty along the road to authoritarianism, The Atlantic, August 23, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/destroying-free-press-erdogan-turkey/568402/.
 Stephen M. Walt, 10 Ways to Tell if Your President is a Dictator, Foreign Policy, November 23, 2016, § 1, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/23/ten-ways-to-tell-if-your-president-is-a-dictator/.
 John Wagner, Trump suggests libel laws should be changed after uproar over Woodward book, The Washington Post, September 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-suggests-libel-laws-should-be-changed-after-uproar-over-woodwards-book/2018/09/05/9c00f2be-b02b-11e8-9a6a-565d92a3585d_story.html?utm_term=.9b61bcf386de; Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Trump-White-Bob-Woodward/dp/1501175513.
 Margaret Harding McGill, FCC chairman’s bind: Defend Trump or free speech, Politico, October 16, 2017, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/10/16/free-speech-trump-pai-fcc-243841.
 Courtney Kube, Kristen Welker, Carol E. Lee, and Savannah Guthrie, Trump Wanted Tenfold Increase in Nuclear Arsenal, Surprising Military, NBC News, October 11, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/all/trump-wanted-dramatic-increase-nuclear-arsenal-meeting-military-leaders-n809701.
 Callum Borchers, ‘We will find out who they are!’ Trump says of leakers. He hasn’t had much luck, The Washington Post, May 15, 2018.
 Laurie Kellman, Leak hunting: The President and his inside critics, Associated Press, September 7, 2018, https://apnews.com/4d279122e6d64c8ea0c1f056deb216a4.
 Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, and Ashley Parker, Venting about press, Trump has repeatedly sought to ban reporters over questions, The Washington Post, July 27, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/venting-about-press-trump-has-repeatedly-sought-to-ban-reporters-over-questions/2018/07/27/0e73a068-91a9-11e8-8322-b5482bf5e0f5_story.html?utm_term=.daf11d608ab8.
 John Wagner, Trump renews attacks on media as ‘the true Enemy of the People,’ The Washington Post, October 29, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-renews-attacks-on-media-as-the-true-enemy-of-the-people/2018/10/29/9ebc62ee-db60-11e8-85df-7a6b4d25cfbb_story.html?utm_term=.6a9679520f2c.
 Eli Rosenberg, Trump admitted he attacks press to shield himself from negative coverage, Lesley Stahl says, The Washington Post, May 22, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/05/22/trump-admitted-he-attacks-press-to-shield-himself-from-negative-coverage-60-minutes-reporter-says/?utm_term=.b096041f545a.