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writing for godot

Trumping the Press

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Monday, 04 November 2019 02:13


Shortly after the 2016 election my friend Joe announced that he had cancelled his subscription to The New York Times.  Why, I asked?  Because, he said, the news in The Times has a consistent “liberal” bias.  You mean the opinion page? I asked.  No, he said, the whole paper. There’s no straight news to be found anywhere in The Times, Joe argued.  And that goes for the rest of the liberal media, too.

Like Joe, too many among us are blind to the importance of a free press and fail to realize the peril that the corrupt cabal now operating out of the White House poses for all the basic freedoms that Americans who have never experienced tyranny often take for granted.  I’m an exception because as an American with a working knowledge of the Russian language, I gained a firsthand  knowledge of Russia when the Kremlin was the citadel of “totalitarian” Communism.  Unlike Soviet citizens, however, I could leave. They could not. They were systematically denied the right to emigrate or, with certain exceptions for a privileged few, even to travel abroad.

I know a bit about Russia past and present. During the last two decades of the Cold War, I frequently visited  the Soviet Union and spent extended periods of time in Moscow, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), and Kiev (then part of USSR) on business. The “business” was not business in the strict sense:  I was a sometime college professor and sometime government employee with top secret and SCI security clearances.*

I had many memorable encounters both official and unofficial.  I recall one individual making the boastful assertion that the USSR had more newspapers than the United States.  “Yes,” I said, “and far, far less news”.

Joe and his wife are fervent Trump supporters.  They are good and decent people who value freedom but turn a blind eye to inconvenient facts about President Donald Trump, such as:

Fact #1:  Trump’s decision to cancel the White House subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post comes at a time when newspapers are fighting for survival.  If the past is prologue, Trump will force the rest of the federal bureaucracy to quit these newspapers—not any two newspapers, mind you, but two that are legendary in the annals of American journalism for standing up to a sitting president facing impeachment.

Fact #2:  It would not matter to either news organization if Donald Trump were a private citizen who decided to cancel his subscriptions; instead, he is the holder of the highest high-profile public office in America. His actions are closely watched in foreign capitals; no world leader is more familiar to the “common people” across the globe.

Fact #3:  President Trump has no moral, ethical, or constitutional qualms about using the power of federal government to punish his critics.  Teddy Roosevelt aptly called the Oval Office a “bully pulpit”, a perch from which Trump tweets to the world and to his base.  Trump views newspapers as businesses vulnerable to a volatile market; hit 'em where it will do the most damage.  For the self-styled deal-maker in the White House, the bottom line is always just that—the bottom line.

Fact #4:  The papers he has chosen to punish are two primary sources of print news and opinion in Washington; no less important, they are symbols of press freedom and the independent media.  Attacking symbols is what demagogues and tyrants do.  Talk about an existential threat to freedom of the press!

Fact #5:  This President’s attempt to delegitimize the independent news media as the institutionalized guardian of democracy (the Fourth Estate) started before he was elected, intensified during the first year or so of his presidency, and has reached a fever pitch now that he is facing impeachment in the House; meanwhile, even if the firewall that is the Senate Republican majority protects him, his biggest fear is losing the 2020 election—if enough voters turn against him he could be the first president in history to face criminal charges upon leaving office.

Fact #6:  Vladimir Putin crushed Russia’s independent mass media and has looked the other way as journalists who dare to speak truth to power are murdered.  Putin, of course, is the ruthless Kremlin boss toward whom Donald Trump has been extraordinarily deferential.  Never mind that Putin’s Russia is an adversary by any reasonable accounting.  Meanwhile, Trump and his minions have been inexplicably indifferent to the fate of Ukraine, an ally.  And this is true despite the existential threat Russia poses to Kiev (the forceful annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, among other things).

In a representative democracy, complacency is the common enemy.  Many—if not most—people including conservatives who are troubled by Donald Trump’s tweets and his “bad boy” antics, fail to appreciate the extent of the danger this President’s war on the press poses to a civil society.  The freedom that we cherish in America owes a great deal to the symbiotic relationship between "the news"—free-wheeling journalism, warts and all—and an accountable government.

*SCI stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information.

Thomas Magstadt is the author of five books including Understanding Politics (St. Martin’s Press) and An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power And Principle in American Foreign Policy (CQ Press); he earned his doctorate at The Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. your social media marketing partner
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