Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are apparently working from an old edition of the dictator’s handbook.
At one time all a dictator need do to suppress press freedom was to lock down the local television stations and firebomb the newspaper offices. But Trump and Sessions are overlooking 230 years of Constitutionally guaranteed press freedom, and even Trump’s conservative base is big on the Bill of Rights. And then there is the internet. Years ago, a good warning was, “don’t pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel.” Today, that warning might be, “live by the tweet, die by the tweet.”
On Friday, Sessions held a media conference to ostensibly announce the formation of a special task force at the Department of Justice to root out leakers, or whistleblowers, depending on your point of view. Barely a day goes by without a shocking headline or breaking news flash on an illegal or unethical action from, or on behalf of, the White House. In the first such admission to date, Sessions said the Justice Department is working on triple the number of leak investigations since Trump took office, compared with those of the Barack Obama administration. And Obama in turn had stepped up leak investigations from that of previous presidents.
Who could not help but smile when we read former White House spokesman Sean Spicer had a private meeting with staffers to put all on notice that he would confiscate their cell phones to monitor leaks? That’s because someone had leaked the news that Spicer was clamping down on leaks.
Sessions didn’t say it directly, but the crackdown is less about leakers and more about media outlets that publish leaks. Or “enemy of the people,” as Trump likes to describe the mainstream media. Verification came the same day in (an allegedly coordinated) video released by the National Rifle Association directed at the “failed” New York Times. “We’ve had it with your pretentious, tone-deaf assertion that you are in any way truth or fact-based journalism,” the video whined. It’s the third in a recent series of NRA videos attacking mainstream news.
For its part, the Grey Lady barely batted an eyelash. Times coverage on Saturday included another leak about the Robert Mueller-Russia investigation and a reminder that readers and yes, leakers, can submit information anonymously. If Justice makes good on its new threat to increase the number of subpoenas to reporters, the information source can’t be traced. Many major mainstream news outlets offer an anonymous channel.
Sounding patient but weary, former CBS news commentator Dan Rather, who in 1981 assumed the chair of a retiring Walter Cronkite — the most trusted man in America — wrote after Sessions’ Last Stand that the Founding Fathers recognized the role of the free press in a healthy democracy and pre-loaded safeguards against the day an orange-haired, narcissistic, greedy, self-involved man-boy would assume the presidency.
“I shudder to think where we would be without (a free press) today. Most reporters I have known take a naked threat such as this as further inspiration to dig even harder to expose the truth. News, as I have said, is what the powerful want to keep hidden,” Rather said.
Or put another way, this time from Adam Goldman of The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in investigative reporting: “Sessions just fired a shot across media bow. You know those Department of Justice media guidelines? They ain’t worth shit.”
Sessions and other DOJ officials exited the media conference without taking questions from reporters. Left unanswered: Who does Sessions consider the media to be, and can individual bloggers or tweeters be held accountable for a leak? If that’s the case, Milwaukee County, Wis., Sheriff David Clark is culpable in leaking his own selection as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He ended up taking his name from consideration. And Trump’s apocryphal 400-pound man on a couch somewhere better watch his back.
We would be remiss if we didn’t note that the current culture of leaking is serious, and that government should be able to do its preliminary work without scrutiny. And to the credit of the mainstream media, most journalists have extensive training in communications law and professional ethics. Reputable news organizations have strict standards for verification by multiple sources, and an obligation to contact the subject of the leak for comment. Whistle-blowing is often a valuable tool in rooting out what is criminal and contrary to the best interest of the American people.
And there is a stark difference between leaks that jeopardize national security and what has become the bulk of White House leaks, mainly the office infighting and divisions among Trump minions. Or things just generally embarrassing to Trump.
But it’s perfectly proper to leak the fact that the nation’s national security chief hid the fact he was paid generously by a foreign government to influence the White House. Or that First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm was selling citizenship along with condominiums. Or that Donald Trump Jr. agreed to meet with Russian operatives to get damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Or that Trump berated the Mexican president during a phone call and informed him he wasn’t to speak out against Trump’s imaginary wall. As Rather said, news is what the powerful want to keep hidden.