Skip to main content
opinion

At a rally in Montana a few days ago, Donald Trump heaped praise on congressman Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a reporter from The Guardian in the 2016 election campaign. The reporter’s sin was to ask a question about health care.

President Trump said Mr. Gianforte was a smart fellow. “And by the way, never wrestle him. You understand that? Never. Any guy that can do a body slam. … He was my guy.”

You might think it’s a highly sensitive time, given the outrage over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, to be running down journalists. But it hasn’t stopped Mr. Trump. Nor will it.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that the Saudis have waged a campaign of deceit about the Khashoggi death, Mr. Trump has been ever so slow to condemn them.

One reason is the financial support his businesses get from Saudi friends; a second is Saudi support against Iran; another is arms sales to the Saudis that he doesn’t want disrupted.

And not to be overlooked is a fourth: the fourth estate. What media critic Jay Rosen calls Mr. Trump’s “hate movement against journalists.” The President doesn’t want that disrupted, either. It’s a pillar of his politics. It must be sustained. He can’t allow the Khashoggi uproar to change the narrative: Journalists are tools of the liberal establishment elite. They need to be undermined. Undermine those who hold you accountable and you are no longer accountable.

Mr. Trump’s long-running campaign against what he calls “very dangerous and sick” journalism has not only affected his own country. The effect is corrosive on democracies in other countries as well.

His enemies-of-the-people media rhetoric very likely factored into the Saudis’ gross miscalculation in going ahead with the Khashoggi killing. Long used to having Washington, not to mention other capitals, turn a blind eye to their human-rights abuses, the Saudis thought they could get away with taking out a dissident writer as well. They could look at what the leader of the free world was saying. They could look at what others in Russia and elsewhere were doing and getting away with.

A report in April from an organization called the Index on Censorship revealed that in the previous year more than 20 countries – democracies of Europe included – had weaponized Mr. Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric to “to justify the closure of critical news outlets, to imprison reporters and censor content.”

Malaysia went so far in the spring as to pass an anti-fake-news law allowing the government to incarcerate those it deemed to have published untruths. Fortunately, it was repealed in August after a new government took power. Polish President Andrzej Duda has used extraordinary means to stifle a free media, tweeting his thanks to Mr. Trump for inspiring him. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has put a stranglehold on the media with nary a negative word from the White House.

On a visit last year to the Philippines, where many journalists have been killed, Mr. Trump laughed when President Rodrigo Duterte attacked the media as “spies.” In Russia, many media critics of the Kremlin have been found dead, the most recent just a few months ago. While Turkey has moved strongly on the Khashoggi investigation, it’s at or near the top of the heap for jailing journalists.

Mr. Trump isn’t in the same league as some of these thugs, but his views helped provide cover.

It’s not all journalists he loathes, he says; only about 80 per cent of them. But unlike other presidents who cut down on media access when they grew embittered with coverage, Mr. Trump upends White House tradition once again by engaging the journalists. He increasingly makes himself available, acts as his own press secretary. In this way, he sucks up all the oxygen, drowns out all other players.

The journalists then go to his rallies where, hated so much, they hide their media credentials. Some of the big names even bring bodyguards.

Hope that the Khashoggi murder will change things is likely misplaced. It will cause some despots, certainly those in Saudi Arabia, to be more wary of silencing their critics.

But any reprieve will likely be temporary. The outrage will wear off. Washington sets the course and Mr. Trump is not about to alter his anti-journalist campaign. Body-slamming the media, having the people believe they’re the liars, not him, is central to his electoral success. And if he does succeed in the midterm elections, we know what will happen. The assault on media First Amendment rights will only intensify.