Donald Trump’s pugnacious defence of his under-fire Attorney-General, Jess Sessions, is part of a wider pattern of disregard for truth in which he sees the news media as his main enemy.
It is the latest twist in Mr Trump’s evasion of scrutiny about the core matter on which he has declared a ‘running war’ with the news media: Russian interference in the presidential election. He has branded the whole Russia story as ‘fake news’ despite the loud alarm raised by America’s intelligence agencies.
Mr Trumps’ assertion that Jeff Sessions’ concealment of his contacts with the Russian ambassador was ‘not intentional’ lends the president’s authority to the belief that the truth about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia in the campaign should not be revealed. Mr Trump tried to deflect attention away from truth-seeking to a fierce attack on his critics, whom he accused of having ‘lost their grip on reality’. That aggressive language matches his slur against the media as ‘the most dishonest human beings’.
Here are five reasons why President Trump’s war with the media really matters:
1. His habitual “lies” and distortions, about things ranging from America having among the highest tax rates in the world to the size of the crowds at his inauguration, confuse the public and mimic Russian President Putin’s casual contempt for the truth, as described in a book by Peter Pomerantsev ‘Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible’. George Orwell exposed the awful consequences of the big lie and the power of Big Brother but the risks are ever-present.
2. His ‘running war with the media’ blatantly contradicts the First Amendment to the US Constitution on freedom of the press. He has said that media ‘are going to pay a big price’ and threatened to cut back or evict parts of the press corps from the White House and stop journalists from citing anonymous sources. Those things would strike a deadly blow against democracy in America.
3. His relentless attempts to discredit some of the most respected news media such as CNN, the New York Times and the BBC represent an attack on organisations which champion the highest standards of reporting including accuracy, fact-checking and accountability. If the American president’s devotion to Twitter is at the expense of mainstream media’s right to hold presidential power to account, more false news will be re-tweeted and the public will be less well informed.
4. His often bullying and contemptuous language – about Mexicans, Hillary Clinton and CNN, among others – is liable to increase the racial divide in America and create a climate of opinion in which vulnerable groups including migrants, minorities and women will suffer and public discourse will be poisoned.
5. Trump’s aggressive and threatening way of treating the media at home will encourage government’s elsewhere to criminalise, imprison and turn populations against journalists and news organisations which are a vital safeguard against oppression, tyranny and wars of aggression.
President Trump himself has said how these potential disasters can be avoided when he spoke in Congress about putting aside ‘trivial fights’. But that cannot be at the expense of the freedom of the press, which has rightly been called the mother of all freedoms.