Here is a very short history of Donald Trump’s long-standing war on the press: He has called reporters “dishonest,” “crooked,” “lying,” “scum,” “disgusting,” “crazy,” and “bad.” He has blacklisted news organizations and thrown reporters out of political rallies. “Good job,” he told Corey Lewandowski, his campaign manager, after Lewandowski forcibly ejected reporter Michelle Fields from an event, leaving her bruised. Trump has vowed to revise libel laws to make it easier to sue media companies—“Believe me, if I become president, oh, do they have problems,” Trump told his supporters—and he has suggested jailing journalists who print classified information. In July, he tweeted a video of himself body-slamming a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face. The media, Trump has said, “is the enemy of the American people.”
These attacks are vile, and they have begun to undermine one of this country’s key democratic institutions. Recent polling suggests that nearly half of all Americans believe the media invents stories about Trump. Even more disturbingly, Trump’s anti-media crusade is making the job of reporting an increasingly dangerous one. Journalists are facing years in prison for covering the protests during Trump’s inauguration. At his rallies, reporters have been attacked with anti-Semitic slurs, alongside chants of “CNN sucks!” And in May, Greg Gianforte, then a Republican congressional candidate in Montana, attacked Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who was simply asking him a question about health care. Such developments led the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to warn in August that freedom of the press is “under attack from the president.” Trump’s statements, he said, could be interpreted as an incitement to violence against journalists.
Particularly troubling is the fact that Trump’s threats against leakers have already led the Justice Department to open three times as many leak investigations as were underway during Barack Obama’s final three years in office. Yet it was actually the Obama administration that began the aggressive war on whistleblowers. It used the Espionage Act to prosecute government employees who spoke to the media, it monitored reporters’ phone records, and it attempted to force journalists to reveal confidential sources. “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” wrote Leonard Downie Jr., one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, in a 2013 report on Obama’s media crackdown. Trump is simply continuing down a path Obama laid out for him.
In other respects, however, Trump’s war on the press differs from Obama’s in much the same way their presidencies differ: in their comparative abilities to get things done. In October, for example, Trump suggested that the government revoke NBC’s license to broadcast news, in retaliation for what he considered “fake news.” But Trump’s call to revoke NBC’s license is an empty threat. The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t base its licensing decisions on the content that is broadcast; it simply examines whether stations have complied with its rules. Networks such as NBC, moreover, do not even receive licenses from the FCC; individual affiliates do. In order for Trump to boot NBC off the air, he’d have to take on dozens of affiliates around the country—a purge that even Trump’s own FCC chair, Ajit Pai, has insisted he would not go along with.
Similarly, Trump’s promises to make it easier to sue news organizations by loosening U.S. libel laws is a complete nonstarter. The president has no power to change libel laws; that is a matter for the courts and state legislatures, and the issue is governed by more than 50 years of Supreme Court precedent. And while Trump has complained loudly and repeatedly about how the press has treated him unfairly, since he has become a politician, he has never followed through with a libel suit.
Such threats, in the end, are best understood as material to rile up Trump’s base and take the focus away from more pressing issues. It’s a technique Trump has deployed time and again throughout his presidency, to great success. Whenever the press has begun to focus on serious issues, Trump has been able to change the subject by lobbing attacks on the media—which rushes to defend itself from every slight. Trump threatened NBC, for example, on a day when he was facing intense criticism over his lackluster response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and just ahead of his announcement that he would decertify the nuclear deal with Iran and cut off the cost-sharing payments that undergird the Affordable Care Act. “One of Trump’s typical moves is to toss a bomb out of nowhere to deflect what is really bothering him, in the hopes that the press will be distracted,” says Doug Sosnik, who served as Bill Clinton’s political director. Trump has failed to enact any significant piece of his legislative agenda, but his strategy of attacking the press has been remarkably effective.
Trump is a master of manipulating the media. During his campaign, he generated an estimated $5 billion worth of free media coverage, simply by saying outrageous things. His presidency, too, has been a boon to the 24/7 news cycle; there are leaks and scoops by the hour, a seemingly endless torrent of breaking news. But in rushing to report on every new outburst and scandal, the press should be careful to avoid playing into Trump’s hand. His attacks on the press are serious. But the media can’t allow itself to be distracted by meaningless threats.