Trump’s media war: straight from the playbook of communist China
The US is losing the moral authority to speak out the next time a journalist is arrested, a newspaper shut, or foreign correspondent deported
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump declared, addressing the Democrats in the chamber. And he can afford to be magnanimous. Their ranks are depleted, and they have little power in Washington to block Trump’s agenda.
But there was no olive branch or call for compromise with that other group Trump and his White House minions have determined are “the real opposition party” – the mainstream news media. Trump’s self-declared battle with the press seems likely to go on, and that fight is anything but trivial. Vital American values and traditions, and the nation’s role in the world, are at stake.
Calling reporters “very dishonest people”, Trump said: “They say that we can’t criticise their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment,” his voice dripping with sarcasm. “You know, they always bring up the First Amendment.”
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Trump spoke to the gathering right after his White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who told the same gathering that the “corporatist, globalist media” represented “the opposition party”, and vowed every day would be “a fight”.
The same day, the White House, in an unprecedented move, barred some reporters from a press briefing, including correspondents from major news outlets like The New York Times, CNN and BBC.
Trump’s attacks on the press are nothing new. Having covered autocratic regimes in Asia and Africa as a correspondent spanning three decades, I’m used to hearing the media denounced in similar terms.
In Beijing, authorities and their mouthpiece media outlets routinely criticised the “meddling foreign press” for presenting what they called a distorted view of the communist regime. In 2008, a website called Anti-CNN was established to combat “the lies and distortions of facts from the Western media”. Sound familiar?
Banning errant reporters from official events? That’s not new either. In 2010, I was invited to a foreign ministry sponsored trip to Tibet ( 西藏 ) – before I was disinvited. The real reason, they let me know, was that officials were upset over an article written by another reporter that had appeared in The Washington Post.
The question is whether the US under Trump will still have the moral authority to speak out the next time a journalist is arrested, a newspaper is shut down, or a foreign correspondent deported.
There was a time when journalists under duress around the world could count on the US government – Republican or Democratic – to be an outspoken defender of press freedom. With Trump, those days may be over.
When the press is derided as the enemy at home, it makes it harder for the US to speak out for press freedom abroad. As Trump would say: SAD! ■
Professor Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is director of The University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre