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I'm Worried About the Future of the Free Press

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

By Florencia Miguez

President Trump is known for his infamous Twitter outbursts–which touch on everything from Katy Perry’s marriage to Arianna Huffington’s looks. But in between some of his ridiculous statements we can find some which are downright scary. The President frequently uses his Twitter account to express his discontent with the way the media is covering his administration: sometimes he simply discredits outlets by calling them part of the fake news media, sometimes he refers to the media as the enemy of the American people. On particularly rough days he combines both types of attacks into a single tweet.

Obviously, we could all take comfort in the fact that those tweets are just words and that the President is not taking action to stop the free press. But words can be dangerous. As Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) argued, “Donald Trump is demonstrating an authoritarian attitude and inclination that shows no understanding of the role of the free press.” The role of the free press in a democracy is crucial: it is often called the fourth branch of government, because, like Congress and the Courts, it can check and balance the power of the Executive Branch: it can hold the President accountable to his campaign promises, and more importantly it can report if the President is abusing his power.

But any sense of comfort disappears when we realize that President’s Trump fight against the free press is not limited to angry words and tweets. According to The Guardian, Trump asked former FBI director James Comey to go after journalists who use classified information as part of their reporting or even if they cite non-classified information coming from White House sources. It is common for journalists to report this kind of information, particularly the latter (sometimes White House officials will even leak information to gauge public opinion on certain proposals), and they haven’t dealt with the threat of prosecution in the past. And while The Guardian reports that the Espionage Act, the statute that the White House would use to prosecute journalists, is unconstitutional, I think the threat of a lawsuit could be enough deter journalistic investigations: it would take a lot of money and time to fight back.

Other Presidents, from Jefferson to Nixon, have had a contentious relationship with the press, but they tended to voice their concerns in private to allies and advisers. They recognized that they needed the press if they wanted their message to get to the American public, which relied on TV and newspapers to get news about what was happening in Washington. President Bush told Ellen DeGeneres that the relationship between the Presidency and the media is a "symbiotic" one: the media needs the President to write stories and the President needs the media to communicate with the electorate. However, President Trump thinks he doesn’t need the media because he can simply send a tweet to communicate with his base, and that has altered the way the Executive Branch and the press deal with each other.

This new dynamic can hurt the free press: knowing that he has nothing to lose, President Trump might break precedent and sue a journalist. It is safe to assume that any court would acquit a journalist because of the protections provided by the First Amendment. But the threat of prosecution can deter journalists from investigations, because nobody wants to go through a trial, especially an unfair one. For that reason I worry about the future of the free press, and more importantly about the future of democracy if dissent is punished and power isn’t checked by an active fourth branch.


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