US President Trump’s threats this week to shut down critical news media is an ominous sign of how fragile American democratic rights have become.
For Donald Trump to impugn media freedom – albeit in his usual whimsical, boorish fashion – nevertheless shows how far democracy has been eroded in the “land of the free”.
The latest furore followed a report this week by NBC in which Trump purportedly harangued his top Pentagon advisers for a 10-fold increase in the US nuclear weapons arsenal.
Trump’s outlandish demand was reportedly made during a high-level national security meeting back in July. It was the same meeting during which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is said to have scoffed at Trump’s antics and called him a “moron”.
Trump has reacted angrily to the reports, dismissing them with his characteristic jargon as “fake news”.
But, adding to the furore, the president also went on to question whether the broadcasting license of NBC and other networks should be cancelled because of what Trump views as “fake news”. That is, the president is speculating on shutting down media outlets.
Such a move by a president would be legally unviable, according to US laws. But it shows the kind of slippery slope that US media and democratic rights are on.
Trump’s latest musing about shutting down NBC and other channels drew predictable outcry from US media, who rightly to a degree, deplored his attack on democratic rights.
The irony is, however, that the attack on American democratic rights has already been underway before Trump entered the White House, and without much protest from the same media outlets who are now railing against Trump over this rants. We can point to the increasing surveillance powers of federal intelligence agencies which have steadily encroached since the September 2001 terror incidents in New York and Washington DC.
Media freedom in the US has been under assault for a long time.
Trump’s latest outburst is not a one-off anomaly. In recent weeks, the US government has moved to severely restrict the freedom of Russia-based news media operating in the country. A move that has so far not been reciprocated by Moscow on US media operating in Russia.
Russian state-owned news channel RT has been forced to register as a “foreign agent” which will curtail how it carries out normal journalistic functions. Sputnik, another Russian state-owned channel, is also under investigation by US authorities over allegations of destabilizing American politics with “fake news”.
The crimping of Russian news media is part of a wider campaign to suppress all alternative media outlets, including US-based websites, which are being labelled as agents of “foreign interests” because of merely posting articles sourced from RT and Sputnik.
The willing participation of US internet companies, Google, Twitter and Facebook, in blocking news sources that are designated “fake” or “interfering in US politics” is another troubling sign of how citizens’ access to information is being curtailed. These gatekeepers of information are openly moving to restrict access to “authoritative”, “respectable” media outlets. Many of these “respectable” news outlets, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, have in the past been guilty of purveying outrageously fake news, like the “weapons of mass destruction” claims which led to the 2003 US war in Iraq that killed over a million people and unleashed on the world the ongoing scourge of jihadist terrorism.
There is absolutely no credible evidence that Russian news media or alternative US-based sites are systematically engaged in an “influence campaign” to destabilize American democracy.
Sure, there is plenty of false information on the internet available through platforms like Facebook, which most Americans now rely on for their news feed. But to lay the blame for this on Russian media is preposterous scapegoating. What really is the issue here is that US authorities and established media companies simply can’t abide rival outlets that are providing an alternative, critical perspective.
For example, Russia’s RT and Sputnik have given much critical coverage on the war in Syria, as well as conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere. Both channels have reported, with documentary evidence, on how the US government and its NATO and regional allies have been complicit in an illegal, covert war for regime change in Syria involving support for extremist militant groups.
This is a critical perspective with grave legal and political implications for Washington and its allies. Just because the US government does not like this kind of unflattering coverage does not legitimize its opprobrium of “fake news”. The latter charge is brazenly being used as a pretext to censor discomfiting information.
There are many other international issues where Russian media are giving a valid, alternative viewpoint. And because official US interests are offended by this critical perspective, the authorities are moving to ostracize Russian media with the spurious allegation of “foreign agents” and “undermining American democracy”.
But the paramount issue here is that this is an audacious attack on American democratic rights of free media and freedom of speech, as supposedly enshrined in the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
All of the US established news media have propagated the bogus narrative of “Russian influence” and “Russian fake news”. This narrative plays well for political opponents of President Trump, primarily in the Democrat party. On this issue, Trump is right when he denounces as “fake news” the campaign to pillory Russia and to allege that the Kremlin directed state-owned media to influence the November presidential election in Trump’s favor.
There is simply no evidence that Russian news media were or are engaged in anything nefarious to destabilize US democracy. Russian media have and do give critical news coverage. If that “destabilizes” Washington’s illicit activities in overseas’ wars then that’s what responsible journalism should be doing. To curb this journalism because it offends geopolitical interests is, frankly, censorship and the actions of a tyrant.
Trump’s latest threats to shutdown the American news channel NBC over alleged “fake news” are indeed menacing. The NBC report on Trump’s nuclear weapons ranting appear to be credible in any case.
But the outcry from US media over Trump’s boorish threats are hypocritical. Their concern seems to be based on a superficial contempt for Trump as a loathsome individual – as opposed to a principled defense of democratic rights, and media freedom in particular.
The US media outlets that are piously railing against Trump over his “assault on the Fourth Estate” are the same outlets which have piled on the pressure to suppress alternative media outlets like Russia’s RT and Sputnik, as well as other US-based independent information sources that are being demonized in McCarthyite fashion as “foreign agents”.
And, again, much of this hostility towards alternative media is motivated by the fact that these alternative media have admirably exposed the hypocrisy and criminality of US authorities. Also exposed is the aiding and abetting by the servile establishment media who have long covered up for the US authorities and their illicit activities in overseas’ wars and against citizens at home.
American democratic rights are indeed on thin ice. But that was the case long before the elephantine Trump arrived on the scene. His clumsy lurching is merely serving to illustrate how treacherously thin the ice has become upon which US democracy now stands.