Previously published at GBH News.
After Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported that President Donald Trump had derided Americans who’ve died in war as “losers” and “suckers,” Trump did what he always does. He attacked Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the venerable magazine, as a “slimeball.” He urged his followers to launch a campaign aimed at harassing The Atlantic’s principal owner, Laureen Powell Jobs. And he called on Fox News to fire reporter Jennifer Griffin for having the temerity to verify Goldberg’s reporting.
As with past outbursts, in which he’s labeled journalists “enemies of the people,” threatened to weaken libel protections and mocked a reporter with a disability, Trump was all bark, no bite. The First Amendment, after all, is a formidable bulwark against attacks on freedom of the press.
But what if Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.
In each case, the threats are different; some are farther along than others. But they are real, and they are worth watching closely. At this point, it’s probably not too late to undo the damage. But it could spell the end if Trump wins re-election. I’ll take them one at a time.
• Stars and Stripes. If you were half-paying attention last week, you might have thought that Trump intervened to save the military newspaper Stars and Stripes from those dastardly Deep Staters at the Pentagon who wanted to shut it down.
Not true. In fact, the White House had been planning to put the legendary paper out of business for months, and only reversed course when the president saw saving it as an expedient way to divert attention from The Atlantic’s story.
“We trimmed the support for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted as saying last February. Yet operating the paper cost just $15.5 million in a defense budget of $700 billion.
The fate of Stars and Stripes — launched during the Civil War — came to a head last Friday, when USA Today reported that the defunding timetable had been moved up and that the paper would close by the end of September. Fortunately, Trump simultaneously found himself under fire for reportedly denigrating the country’s war dead, leading to the president’s announcement that he was saving Stars and Stripes. As Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times tweeted, “I think the Atlantic just saved some newspaper jobs.”
Reporter Helene Cooper wrote in The New York Times that Stars and Stripes has “frustrated presidents and defense secretaries” in recent years “by elevating the voices of those in uniform who contradicted commanders and political leaders.” Stars and Stripes ombudsman Ernie Gates told Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review that even if Trump wasn’t directly involved in the decision to cut funding, “three-plus years of the message that ‘the press is the enemy of the people’ emboldened some in the Pentagon who regard Stars and Stripes’ independent reporting as an annoyance.”
The Trump administration tried to silence that critical voice, and the president backed down to solve a political problem. If he gets a second term, you can be sure he’ll try again.
• Voice of America. Founded in 1942, Voice of America was best known during the Cold War for broadcasting news to residents of communist countries behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain. The service has always enjoyed a reputation for providing reliable information. After all, citizens of those regimes were already being subjected to a steady diet of propaganda. Voice of America aimed to counter that with the truth.
VOA continues to be a vital source of news and information around the world — or at least it did until recently, when Trump put Steve Bannon associate Michael Pack in charge. As Julian Borger reported in The Guardian, Pack has led a purge of journalists at VOA, claiming without evidence that they represented a threat to national security, sparking a revolt among the staff.
Shawn Powers, who recently left a top position at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, told NPR media reporter David Folkenflik: “What we’re seeing now is the step-by-step and wholescale dismantling of the institutions that protect the independence and the integrity of our journalism.”
A great deal of work would have to be done to repair VOA and restore its reputation. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen during a second Trump term.
• National Public Radio. Unlike Voice of America and Stars and Stripes, NPR, our leading free, nonprofit source of news, is not under the direct control of the Trump administration. Very little of its funding comes from the government — although dues from member stations are its largest source of funding, and some of those stations are highly dependent on government money.
Which is to say that NPR is relatively immune from retribution, though not as immune as, say, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
NPR is hardly a bastion of the Resistance. If you listen regularly, you’ll often hear the network’s journalists bend over backwards to normalize this most abnormal of presidents. But, to their credit, they have their limits, and they push back in defense of their reporting.
The most recent example arose after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, two fatally, in Kenosha, Wisconsin — protests sparked by the unprovoked police shooting of Jacob Blake. Trump claimed that Rittenhouse appeared to have acted in self-defense, a claim for which NPR said Trump had “no evidence” because, well, there wasn’t. Rittenhouse may have been afraid, but that doesn’t make it self-defense.
NPR’s straight-up reporting brought about calls on the right to defund NPR. That, in turn, led to a timid column by NPR public editor Kelly McBride, who wrote, “The evidence may be confusing or inconclusive, but it exists, and it’s inaccurate to say that Trump had none.”
Trump himself did not specifically call for funds to be cut — but he has in the past. Last February, after NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly conducted a tough but fair interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump called it a “very good question” as to why the organization received public funds. Moreover, Trump has sought the zeroing out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund both NPR and PBS.
During his more than three and a half years in the White House, and for that matter over the course of his entire career, Trump has made it clear that he’ll do anything to silence and punish critics. On one level, his assault on the mainstream media has been ineffective; but on another, it’s worked brilliantly, since he has succeeded in delegitimizing them as “fake news” in the eyes of his followers.
The threat facing media institutions tied to the government is more direct, more serious — and, if Trump manages to win a second term, perhaps insurmountable.