This Thanksgiving, when I’ve been musing on the many reasons I have to give thanks, my mind flipped back to a meeting I had in 2000 in the Kremlin with a top Russian official.
Talking about Vladimir Putin’s plans for the presidency, the aide ticked off the number of major media outlets the Kremlin planned to seize from private owners, including national TV networks.
Would Putin countenance any independent news outlets, I asked? “If we want any independent media, we will create it,” he answered, a chilling glimpse into the Kremlin’s plan to control the national news.
Flash forward to the present. I am thankful I live in a country where the First Amendment guarantees press freedom, a country whose founding fathers considered a critical media to be essential. Despite the tensions between the president-elect and any media critics, it wouldn’t be possible for Donald Trump to pull a Putin and seize the New York Times and CNN.
Yet, Trump’s sensitivity to any perceived media slight, and his vendettas against journalists who write critical stories, promise trouble ahead.
Consider the experience of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, whom Trump targeted because she questioned him on his vulgar statements about women. “The relentless campaign that Trump unleashed on me and Fox News to try to get coverage the way he liked it was unprecedented and potentially very dangerous,” Kelly told the Times. That included pressure on her bosses and a retweet by a top Trump deputy that called for Trump to “gut her” – as well as nasty tweets from Trump’s official account.
Trump’s attacks spurred his fans to such vitriol, including death threats, that Kelly had to hire security guards, as she details in her new book, “Settle for More.” If Trump were to repeat the same behavior from the White House, Kelly says, “it would be quite chilling for many reporters.”
Yet we know that Trump views investigative stories about, say, his business interests, as a personal affront. He’s made this clear in angry meetings with media executives and his endless tweets attacking the Times.
And Trump has pledged to sue newspapers for critical articles, a pledge that flies in the face of First Amendment press freedom guarantees that were upheld by the unanimous 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan. In that ruling, the court stated that a plaintiff had to prove that news organizations knowingly published a falsehood or recklessly disregarded whether a claim was false or not.
That definition is far more applicable to Trump’s five-year promotion of the birther lie that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya than it is to stories about Trump University’s bilking of students. Yet Trump has appeared eager to shut such press investigations down.
During the campaign, candidate Trump pledged that he would “open up those libel laws so when they write … horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money.” In other words, the president-elect would like – if he can appoint justices who will concur – to intimidate potential critics with the fear of lengthy litigation.
That would put him in league foreign strongmen such as Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have perfected the art of silencing journalists through the courts – or even worse methods.
Turkey has a law that permits jailing journalists for “insulting the president.” The government has filed more than 2,000 of these cases since Erdogan became president in 2014, even extending them to posts on social media. In June, a court convicted a former Miss Turkey of insulting Erdogan by sharing a satirical poem about him on her Instagram account.
The Turkish leader publicly denounces individual journalists who write critical commentary, which often leads to their being fired. “We have a president that regards every criticism as defamation. Effectively, half our lives are wasted in courtrooms,” says Can Dundar, a well-known columnist who was charged with insulting the president.
A preview of what’s ahead in the United States?
As for private media outlets that criticize the government, the Turkish government has targeted their owners with tax investigations and some have been forced to pay massive fines. (The government used the failed July coup attempt against Erdogan to launch more draconian attacks: shutting critical newspapers and arresting scores of journalists; Turkey leads the world in imprisoning journalists.)
Which brings me back to what I am thankful for at Thanksgiving.
I still believe Trump’s efforts at media intimidation will backfire. I still believe Trump would find it embarrassing to be compared to strongmen such as Erdogan, who try to silence journalists, let alone to his pal Putin, under whom pesky journalists are beaten and murdered. And I know that journalists who believe in their profession won’t back down.
So maybe Trump’s tune will change in the White House. Maybe he meant it when, asked about his commitment to the First Amendment by Times staff Tuesday, he said: “I think you’ll be OK.”
Trump also said someone told him he might get “sued a lot” if he tried to soften up libel laws. That, he said, was something he’d never considered. Maybe that prospect will persuade him to respect freedom of the press.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.