As a recovering attorney and writer, I was often considered a failure in south Asian circles for not becoming a doctor. Now, I proudly represent two professions who offer the greatest resistance to Donald Trump’s continued assault on the first amendment.
Journalists and attorneys are partnering together in a new amended lawsuit filed by Pen America arguing the president is abusing the machinery of the government to threaten and target journalists, neutralize critical media coverage and exact retribution in direct violation of the first amendment.
According to a blockbuster New Yorker article, Trump allegedly directed his former economic adviser Gary Cohn to pressure the Department of Justice to block a merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T in order to punish CNN for its critical news coverage of him and his administration. Much of these allegations were earlier cited by Pen America in its lawsuit against Trump for his targeted retaliation against media outlets for their coverage of him. One source claimed that the targeted merger actions by the president and Department of Justice were in fact about CNN: “This has become political … It’s all about CNN.”
Other instances support that the president limits media access when journalists cover news in ways he dislikes. At the US and North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, Trump praised, elevated and normalized Kim Jong-un, who starves and kills his own people. While he fawned over North Korea’s dictator, Trump blocked media access after a reporter asked a question about his former attorney Michael Cohen’s damning testimony before Congress.
The last two years should frighten anyone who cares about an independent free press. Lies are now “alternative facts”, according to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. At one time, “fake news” or “hoax” were terms reserved for outlandish National Enquirer covers about Elvis playing Yahtzee with Bigfoot. Now Trump uses them for any news or evidence critical of him or his administration.
Trump is taking cues from Big Brother and 1984, a novel he most assuredly has not read. In an address to a veterans association, Trump assured them “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”.His attorney, Rudy Giuliani, continuing his slide towards ignominy, supports Trump’s disinformation by suggesting “truth isn’t truth”.
The Republican party in 2019 told Americans to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears. It might be Trump’s final, most essential command.
That warning by George Orwell might seem like dystopian hyperbole, but recall that Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted a digitally altered video falsely appearing to show the CNN reporter Jim Acosta assaulting an intern during a press conference. This literal “fake news” was created by the conspiracy-peddling outfit Infowars, whose founder Alex Jones said the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre of 20 children was a hoax.
Months later, Sanders’ tweet is still up there. She has yet to apologize for it.
Trump Inc’s utter contempt for facts and decency is only matched by its disregard for the rule of law and loathing of the free press. Trump himself has repeatedly vilified the New York Times as “the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”. The president, who has uttered more than 8,000 false statements in the past two years, has the audacity and shamelessness to declare the “press has never been more dishonest than it is today”.
Trump has unpredictably emerged as a fickle, thin-skinned narcissist whose tiny fingers tweet perpetual victimhood, bile and hate against critics and enemies, real or imagined, even though he occupies the greatest seat of power and privilege.
For writers and journalists, however, his authoritarian impulses create a uniquely hostile climate for individuals simply trying their best to do their job of reporting the news. The BBC’s Ron Skeans was attacked by a Trump supporter at a rally in El Paso, Texas, after Trump whined about “fake news” and negative media coverage. Rachael Pacella, a reporter who survived the tragic Capital Gazette mass shooting that claimed five lives, tweeted that Trump’s continued attacks on journalists make her fear for her life. At a Montana campaign rally, Trump praised the state’s congressman, Greg Gianforte, for physically assaulting a Guardian journalist. “Any guy who can do a body slam – he’s my guy,” Trump said.
In 2016, It looked to me that I was one of few journalists of color to be covering a Trump rally in Maine a few weeks before the election. I also happened to be one of the darkest people in one of the whitest states in America. For the first time in my career, several respected colleagues from multiple outlets texted and messaged me to “be careful” and “be safe”.
Fast forward to 2018, Trump is now president, and the United States was added to the list of most dangerous countries for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 63 professional journalists were killed doing their jobs last year, a 15% increase since 2017. Most notably, the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey – a killing widely believed to have been ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump has shamefully ignored his own intelligence communities and US allies in failing to condemn Prince Mohammed. Instead, Trump acts as Prince Mohammed’s defense counsel, going so far as to praise the incompetent King Joffrey of the Middle East.
If the president of the United States of America, the global figurehead and messenger for freedom and liberty, is abusing his powers to pressure and threaten his critics with impunity, why would authoritarian leaders not take it as a sign to bludgeon their own critics?
If Fox News and the rightwing media ecosystem has now fully transformed into state TV and propaganda, abdicating all pretenses of journalistic ethics and professionalism, then what is the responsibility for the rest of us who are at least attempting to be fair, thorough and truthful?
When an administration blatantly fails to protect a free press and instead willfully and maliciously abuses its power to threaten writers, journalists and critics, then it’s imperative for the rest of us to band together, rise up and fight back using facts, our words and the rule of law.
I hope people support Pen America’s lawsuit, or at the very least, continue supporting and encouraging journalists, writers and lawyers who are attempting, in the best way we can, to resist by simply doing what we know how to do best: our jobs.
Unfortunately for Trump, he has gone after a group individuals who always get the last word.