Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with press on Sept. 5, 2016, aboard his campaign plane, while flying over Ohio, as Vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence looks on.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Trump puts press freedoms in his crosshairs

Throughout American history, presidents and presidential candidates have complained about the press. It’s effectively part of the process: news organizations, responsible for holding public officials responsible, invariably draw criticisms from those they cover. It’s an inescapable part of an adversarial process.

But Donald Trump’s approach to democratic norms and institutions tends to be, shall we say, unique, and this certainly applies to the First Amendment’s free-press protections. Consider this exchange yesterday between Jim DeFede at the CBS affiliate in Miami and the Republican presidential candidate.
DEFEDE: In the past you have talked about wanting to amend laws and rework things to make it easier to sue. Do you think there is too much protection allowed in the First Amendment?

TRUMP: Well in England, they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong. Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and they get away with it. And I think we should go to a system where if they do something wrong – I’m a big believer, tremendous believer in the freedom of the press, nobody believes it stronger than me – but if they make terrible, terrible mistakes, and those mistakes are made on purpose to injure people – and I’m not just talking about me, I’m talking anybody else – then yes, I think you should have the ability to sue them.
As the transcript excerpt shows, Trump went on to further tout the benefits of a British system, in which the First Amendment does not exist.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the U.S. system already has libel laws and Americans can already sue for “actual malice.” Trump should probably be aware of this – because his friends at the National Enquirer and other tabloids have faced lawsuits along these lines before.

Nevertheless, the Republican presidential hopeful apparently sees these laws as inadequate and wants to “go to a system” that makes it easier to target news organizations.

And that’s just part of a broader series of changes Trump has in mind when it comes to American journalism.

The GOP nominee also spoke over the weekend about breaking up Comcast/NBC Universal – MSNBC’s parent company – which he accused of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter.”

Trump has also threatened to sue the New York Times, suggested he’d target Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, and pulled the credentials of outlets whose campaign coverage he disapproved of.

Again, the fact that a would-be president often butts heads with major news organizations is about as common as the sunrise, but Donald Trump isn’t just unhappy with coverage he considers unfair. The Republican nominee has now expressed support for changing the nature of press freedoms in the United States.

There’s been a lot of talk of late about Trump’s hostility towards democratic norms and American political institutions, and with good cause. The GOP candidate talks regularly and openly about imprisoning his opponents, his affinity for authoritarian regimes abroad, and his willingness to question the legitimacy of the U.S. elections process.

But let’s not forget that Trump’s attitudes towards a free press clearly belong on the same list.