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Anti-democratic rulers always try to prevent a free press from reporting what they are doing. Authoritarian governments past and present have developed a model for eliminating independent news reporting. Donald Trump and his allies are creating a different model, with disastrous long-term effects for American democracy.
The common model has been to shut down unsupportive newspapers and to create their own "news" outlets spouting official "truth." When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in October 1917, they were uncertain about how much press freedom they would allow. During the New Economic Policy period from 1921 to 1928, limited freedom to publish was given to sympathetic non-Communists. After Stalin took power, however, every word published in the Soviet Union had to conform to strict government guidelines.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were 4,700 newspapers in Germany, but the Nazis took control over the published word much more quickly than the Soviets had. Leftist parties were outlawed and their newspapers seized. Two Jewish publishing empires owned by the Ullstein and Mosse families were destroyed within a year. Critical journalists fled the country. Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry issued detailed daily guidelines about what could be printed, with the threat of arrest and concentration camp for those who disobeyed. By the end of the Nazi regime, there were only about 1,000 newspapers, and those owned by the Nazi Party outsold independent organs 5 to 1.
Violent repression, censorship and news written by the government were the hallmarks of the Nazi and Soviet destruction of press freedom. This model has been followed by many repressive regimes since then, and extended to news media on radio and TV.
The connection between control of journalism and development of authoritarian government is demonstrated most clearly today in Recep Erdogan's Turkey. As Erdogan jailed political opponents and reconstituted the government to consolidate personal power, he initiated a wide crackdown on the press. Turkey has jailed more journalists in the past two years than any other country.
Donald Trump's war against the free press is often compared to the methods of Hitler, Mussolini, and other dictatorial rulers. But I think these comparisons are misleading. The Republican Party in no way resembles the monolithic parties which violently suppressed opponents. Trump's administration does not have the broad powers to deploy force against the press. Closing newspapers or arresting journalists would cause a constitutional crisis in the US.
Instead Trump has used another model for reducing the ability of our free press to describe and criticize his government. First, he has spread distrust of the mainstream media, so that their reporting about his words and his administrative actions is not believed by his supporters. He goads those who attend his rallies to shout "CNN sucks," calls journalists "horrendous people", and lately uses the phrase "enemy of the people" to describe the mainstream media in general. Attacks on the major national news outlets are part of nearly every speech he gives.
Trump did not initiate conservative attacks on mainstream news reporting. The objective reporting of news was Sarah Palin's primary political target in the 2008 campaign and afterwards, but she was following an already conventional conservative complaint about media bias against the right. In 2014, before Trump began his campaign, Pew surveys showed that "consistent conservatives" distrusted the major national newspapers, NYTimes, Washington Post and USA Today, and the national TV news organizations, except FOX.
Second, Trump supplements attacks on responsible media with unprecedented support for the irresponsible reporting of pretend journalists. Again, the far right media establishment predates Trump. Already in 1995, FAIR reported on a "right-wing media machine" based on personal attacks, fabricated stories, and thinly disguised white supremacy. But Trump gives respectability to what used to be a lunatic media fringe. His anti-free-press model uses existing right-wing media organizations to circulate the "news" he likes.
Alex Jones disseminates made-up conspiracies on his website Infowars, designed to create distrust of our government: that the mass murders at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon, and Oklahoma City were government hoaxes perpetrated. Trump appeared on his program as a presidential candidate, praised him as "amazing", and repeated many of his wild and untrue ideas. The White House granted Infowars official press credentials in 2017.
Trump's promotion of Steve Bannon, the director of Breitbart News, to be his campaign director and then special adviser in the White House, put the leading voice of alt-right disinformation at the center of his administration.
Recent polling shows that more than two-thirds of Republicans think traditional major news sources make "fake, false, or purposely misleading" reports "a lot." That is true for only 42% of independents and 22% of Democrats. Most Republicans think the NYTimes (74%) and the Washington Post (65%) are biased, but only 19% distrust Breitbart.
Trump's model is designed to subvert democracy from within without violence. Responsible news sources will continue to report Trump's constant lying and his political failures, while Trump will continue to call these reports "fake news." Unless FOX decides to start reporting in a "fair and balanced" manner, conservative voters will continue to prefer the fantasyland of right-wing media to the real world of factual journalism.