The President, the Press and the Courts

Posted by Michael Getler on

On Monday, President Trump visited the U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and, among other things, told the gathering at one of this country’s most crucial, frontline commands that the news media were purposely either ignoring or not covering terrorist attacks.

“You’ve seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it’s happening,” he told the troops. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”

What the president said is not accurate, as many news organizations, fact-checkers, including PolitiFact and FactCheck.org —and the PBS NewsHour reported. But it is very important.

Last month, after his inauguration, the president had also used an appearance at the CIA—another crucial part of the national security complex—to attack the press for allegedly fabricating his feud with the intelligence community. "I have a running war with the media; they are among the most dishonest human beings on earth," he said. FactCheck.org called it “revisionist history.” But the President's remarks, in both cases, were televised nationally.

This, Too, Is Important

Two days before he went to MacDill, the president had taken to Twitter to attack the decision of a federal judge in the state of Washington who had issued a temporary block on his controversial travel ban and also made it personal by describing U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart as a “so-called judge.” The following day he tweeted this: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.” That was also important.

As was this: Back in May at a rally in San Diego, in what the Wall Street Journal reported at the time as “one of his most personal attacks against an apolitical figure since becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump delivered an extended tirade about the federal judge overseeing the civil litigation against his defunct [Trump University] education program.”

Among the things he was quoted as saying: “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel…The judge was appointed by Barack Obama…Frankly, he should recuse himself because he’s given us ruling after ruling after ruling— negative, negative, negative…What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine.” Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.

And as this posting is being written, it is being reported  that “President Trump’s escalating attacks on the federal judiciary drew denunciation Wednesday from his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who told a senator that the criticism was ‘disheartening’ and ‘demoralizing’ to independent federal courts.”

These episodes, of course, are important and newsworthy just on the face of what they are: public, verbal attacks—some of them personal, blame-shifting and slashing—by the President of the United States.

When Do Attacks Become An Assault?

But they are also important, as I see it, because they have become assaults—continuous in the case of President Trump’s attacks on the press—that constitute efforts, whether intended or not, to diminish or destroy the only two institutions, the press and the courts, that remain independent of political control these days within the system of checks and balances that has long distinguished American democracy. Attacking a free and independent press and the judiciary, beyond what are normal and occasional disagreements that any president has, can be Chapter One in the playbook for authoritarianism if the goal is to silence dissent.

Even though the major news and fact-checking organizations responded quickly to counter this week’s presidential claims about underreporting of terrorist acts, the presidency is indeed a bully pulpit and the response often does not catch up, nor does it have the impact of the initial presidential statement or reported tweet carried on national television. That is especially the case with a president who tweets and talks so often that follow-up stories get lost or overtaken almost immediately.

The NewsHour Spoons It Out Slowly 

The NewsHour coverage on Tuesday evening turned out to be good, but it didn’t seem that way at the outset.

About four minutes into the program’s introductory wrap-up of the day’s news, and right after reporting on the immigration ban status, correspondent John Yang said: “Related to all of this, the president’s assertion that the new media has ignored some acts of terrorism. The White House released a list of 78 incidents. It said most of them were terrorist attacks that didn’t get enough news coverage.”

Then he introduced a clip from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who said: “Part of this is to make sure that the American people are reminded how prevalent some of these attacks are, and how much time and attention they have or have not gotten, but, more importantly, to make sure that they understand the unwavering commitment that the president has and the actions that he will take to keep the country safe.” Yang closed by adding, “Spicer said the list was assembled after the president’s statement,” and then Yang signed off.

So there was no rebuttal and no mention of one to come until about five minutes later when anchor Judy Woodruff said that, among other segments to follow, was a fact-check about whether terror attacks are actually underreported by the media. Five and a half minutes later, that turned out to be a good and informative segment with Woodruff questioning Washington Post reporter Philip Bump.

But if you took out the dog or the garbage after the news wrap or, God forbid, if you changed the channel, you would never have known that there was a big, other side to the president’s statement in Florida. Here’s a video of that segment:

Posted on Feb. 9, 2017 at 12:05 p.m.

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