Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the ‘fake news’ media since announcing his campaign for the US presidency in 2015.
But the challenge to press freedom in the US did not begin with the outgoing president.
As he gets ready to depart the Oval Office, we look at the data on Trump’s record with the press to survey what the outgoing president has done to democracy’s fourth estate.
Donald Trump and freedom of the press
According to the annual press freedom index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which ranks countries based on factors such as media pluralism and independence, the US ranks 45 out of the 180 countries covered.
The country’s ranking was, however, not much better under Trump’s immediate predecessors. Despite promising that his administration would be the most transparent in history, under Obama the US fell dramatically down the RSF ranking, slipping from 20th to 47th place between 2010 and 2011.
According to Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of US non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists, Obama’s administration helped pave the way for Trump’s assault on the press. Among other things, Obama repeatedly opposed the release of public information and cracked down on government leaks.
“Obama absolutely laid the groundwork,” says Radsch. “He used the Espionage Act more than all other presidents combined and set a very dangerous precedent of going after journalistic sources.
“And of course, we can’t forget the mass surveillance and the attacks on encryption,” she adds.
But Obama and Bush did not resort to public rhetoric against individual journalists, news outlets and the institution of the media itself, says Radsch.
“There’s a fundamental difference between the rhetoric, the destruction of democratic norms, the destruction of international human rights norms, withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, Unesco and all these international norm-setting bodies,” she says. “Many of the detrimental things under the Trump administration started under the Obama administration but they accelerated and were worsened by the rhetoric and constant harping on the press.”
American distrust of news media
One of Trump’s most effective rhetorical ploys has been the destruction of press credibility through sustained attacks on the news media at rallies, press events and on Twitter, says Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“There’s no question that the single most damaging thing he has done is to publicly denounce the media, call them fake, call them liars and basically call into question their integrity and their veracity,” says Dalglish. “It has done incalculable damage to the reputation of the media and the willingness of the public to have faith in the professional truth-based media.”
According to polling data from Gallup, while Democrats’ trust in media has grown, faith in the media among Republicans sunk to an all-time low during Trump’s time in office, highlighting the effectiveness of his campaign to discredit the press among his millions of supporters.
In 2020, just 10% of Americans who identify as Republican said they trusted the media a great deal or a fair amount, compared to 73% of Democrat supporters.
Twitter as a platform to denounce the press
One of Trump’s key tactics to exert his power and strengthen his message is repetition. The outgoing leader has repeatedly attacked the press with slurs such as “fake news”, “the enemy of the people” and “dishonest”.
According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, Trump denounced the media from his Twitter account 2,520 times since launching his first presidential election campaign.
While his anti-media tweets have been relentless, analysis suggests that Trump stepped up his attacks on the media during his two election campaigns and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among his most popular targets were CNN, which was the primary subject of 251 Twitter attacks, and the New York Times, which was criticised 241 times, according to analysis of US Press Freedom Tracker data.
Trump’s vitriol against these outlets goes beyond Twitter – the President sued CNN and the New York Times, along with the Washington Post for libel during his re-election campaign.
Although Trump’s Twitter account has now been suspended, Radsch says it’s going to be extremely difficult to undo Trump’s undermining of truth and trust.
“It takes a lifetime to build trust, and it can take a moment to destroy it,” she says. “It’s not only about an individual; it’s also about all of the other political leaders that adopted this very troubling framework of fake news and have now created an entire new framework that has been codified in laws in many places. It’s going to be a long process to restore US credibility.”
Irregular press briefings
Along with using Twitter to attack the media and control information flows, Trump restricted common journalistic sources of information such as the traditional White House daily press briefing.
Our analysis of the number of press briefing reports posted to the official White House website suggests that Obama’s administration held more than 1,100 press briefings during his eight years in office, compared to 300 in four years under Trump.
The briefings – a key arena for journalists to challenge the administration – became increasingly infrequent in 2018 before drying up for much of 2019.
The lack of briefings forced reporters to develop confidential off-the-record sources of information which could more easily be dismissed as “fake news.”
According to Radsch, sidestepping press briefings was part of his broader strategy to control the information provided to journalists and the public.
“The fact that Trump restricted access to the White House was part of a long trend of restricting access to information under this administration,” says Radsch.
Trump vs media: Violence at home and abroad
Trump’s four years in office has seen harassment of journalists crossing borders and rising incidents of police brutality against reporters.
“Trump has not only damaged the reputation of professional journalists who are out there working every day to do the right thing and report the truth to the public. He has put them physically in danger,” says Dalglish.
Although the US Press Freedom Tracker only began collecting data on aggressions against journalists in 2017, its data shows that the situation in 2020 was particularly bad, mostly due to high levels of police brutality towards journalists during the Black Lives Matter protests.
The 900 assaults on the press that were reported during the protests cannot be separated from the wider climate of media hostility in the US, says Radsch.
“It is certainly striking that after years of berating and belittling the press and calling them the enemies of the people, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of violence against them,” she says.
While almost all forms of aggression against journalists increased in 2020, there was a 12-fold increase in the number of journalists arrested compared to 2019 and an eight-fold rise in those physically attacked.
Dalglish believes Trump’s actions have emboldened political leaders in places such as Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt, China and Russia to act against the media in their countries.
“It has given free rein to dictators around the world who think, ‘well, the US is bashing the media and doing damage to truth and a free press. Why don’t we try it too?'” says Dalglish.
As of December 2020, a record 274 journalists were behind bars around the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The ongoing quotidian attacks on the press really set an incredibly difficult and dangerous tone for journalists and created very negative precedents abroad,” says Radsch. “We can see for example how [Trump’s] use of fake news really resonated around the world as that same rhetoric was picked up by world leaders of all political stripes and we’ve seen an increase in the number of journalists jailed around the world on false news charges.”
Trump’s refusal to hold the Saudi regime accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 is often cited as a particularly egregious example of Trump’s disregard of media freedom.
Given the legacy he is inheriting, restoring the central role of press freedom in American civic life and the US’s international democracy promotion efforts overseas will not be an easy task for Biden, says Radsch.
But there are concrete actions that the president-elect should take she says, among them reinstating daily press briefings and establishing g a Special US Presidential Envoy on press freedom.
Both Radsch and Dalglish agree that one of the key things Biden can do is make a major speech underlining the importance of press freedom.
“Among the things Biden has to do in the first days of being president is to say something positive that gives credibility to mainstream, independent, professional media and give credit where credit is due when a good job is done. I don’t mean to say heap praise on [the media], but stop denigrating the people that are out there,” says Dalglish.
Dalglish is hopeful that Biden can have a positive impact – not least because unlike his predecessor he has what she says is a healthy respect for media.
“I’m hopeful it will get better. Or at least I’m hopeful it will slow down the bleeding,” she says.