In 2017, the press will have to confront a president and a public that are dangerously hostile to it.
President Obama has not been a friend to national security journalists. His administration has used grand jury subpoenas to force reporters to reveal their confidential sources. And it’s used the Espionage Act, a vague 1917 law that criminalizes sharing sensitive national security info, to jail reporters’ sources.
But Obama at least paid lip service to the importance of press freedom. He held regular press conferences, sat down with reporters for one-on-one interviews, and publicly praised investigative journalism.
Compare that to the president-elect. Trump made insulting journalists a staple of his campaign rallies, threatened to sue news organizations for reporting true stories that were critical of him, and refused to issue press credentials to reporters who had written things that he did not like.
Combine the Obama administration’s legal precedent with Trump’s disdain for the press and you’ve got a dangerous mix.
Trump and his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will likely to increase the number of subpoenas and leak prosecutions. They might even go a step further and try to indict reporters under the Espionage Act. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, has already said that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet “should be in jail.”
Such heavy-handed repression of journalists might inspire public outcry against Trump. Or it might not. Right now, much of the public shares the president-elect’s disdain for journalists.
A nasty, polarized campaign filled with competing charges of media bias has soured the press in the eyes of many people on both left and right. These people won’t stop reading and watching mainstream news sources, but they will have less trust in them. That will make it harder for mainstream journalists to win sympathy if Trump tries to crush them.
It will also make it tougher to debunk conspiracy theories spread by fake news sites. Someone might read The New York Times, but that doesn’t mean they’ll trust the Times when the paper debunks conspiracy theories or fact-checks politicians.
It’s not enough for people to read the news. They have to trust it.
Public distrust of the press will also make it easier for celebrities and billionaires to silence media companies that they don’t like. The Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan made it difficult for public figures to win libel cases against journalists. Even when a jury finds in favor of a public figure, those verdicts are usually reversed on appeal. But plaintiffs don’t have to win cases in order to make life difficult for media companies. Legal bills aren’t cheap. A sufficiently motivated billionaire can easily fund enough frivolous lawsuits to bankrupt a small media organization.
Invasion-of-privacy suits are even more dangerous for news organizations, since truth isn’t a defense. Journalists can publish accurate stories and still be found liable for invading someone’s privacy. A jury that identifies more with celebrities than journalists is less likely to accept high-minded First Amendment arguments about newsworthiness and the public’s right to know.
In 2017, journalists will face attacks on all fronts. They’ll need to defend their First Amendment rights in court while keeping the public informed about the Trump’s administration’s activities. They’ll need to remind the American people why a free press is important.
Peter Sterne covers media for Politico.