Alternative facts have become the new norm in Trump’s America. In other words, the Trump administration has taken it upon themselves to rewrite and rebrand America’s rhetoric. According to press secretary Sean Spicer, this is in order to hold the press to account for “deliberately false reporting” that Trump’s war on the media will seek to combat. What, then, does this mean for the future of the press in American discourse? Are we more likely to see a trend towards disdain for media outlets, or are we looking towards an America that rallies against the president in support of this freedom? To answer this question it is first important to delve deeper into the actual right of freedom of the press in American history.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression from government interference. The right to freedom of expression consists of “the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief.” Freedom of speech is the most commonly referenced aspect of this. Freedom of speech gives the media the right to express their ‘version of facts’.
I say ‘version of facts’ because in American media, the partisan divide in news outlets is clearly visible. Of the prominent news outlets, most tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 47% of conservatives get their news from one source, Fox News, while liberals tend to view a variety (15% CNN, 12% MSNBC, 13% NPR, 10% New York Times. In each respective news source, the opinions and bias of the commentators will vary depending on the audience who subscribes to them. This represents a problem in the American media; the news the public is receiving is largely partisan. This is especially true if the public only subscribes to one news source for all of their information. However, while this bipartisan divide in news media is an issue, there is a bigger issue ahead. We must consider the repercussions of the abolishment of “public” news. What remains is then only one source of information; the White House. This is a goal that the new president seems to be set on.
Donald Trump is a new kind of politician- igniting fires through twitter, exclaiming that some of the media organizations listed above (CNN, NYTimes, MSNBC) distribute fake news. This further strengthens the already deep, partisan divide in the United States. By defining these news channels as ‘fake,’ the President is rejecting the half of the population who watches these news channels. Senator John McCain, a republican, has even publicly decried this as a move towards dictatorship: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press.” Trump reprimands the news outlets for publishing “fake news,” especially when criticizing his concerning relationship with Russia. The war on the media has thus created a divide, not only along partisan lines, but also between those who accept the Trump administration’s claims, and those who believe otherwise. Trump’s continued rhetoric regarding this hatred of the news media and tweets stating that the “news media is the enemy of the american people” seems to be working, as a recent poll conducted by Emerson University has found that the Trump administration is believed to be truthful by 49% of registered voters, and untruthful by 48%. The media, on the contrary, is less trusted, with 53% believing it to be dishonest, and 39% finding it honest. While this poll also shows that many more republicans (9/10) than democrats (1/4) believe in the truth of the administration, this data remains shocking.
What does this mean for the future of freedom of speech in this unprecedented era of American politics? The media can only effectively operate if people watch and believe in the process. The political process relies upon an electorate that is motivated and informed about the issues at stake. Trump’s claims of ‘fake news’ endanger that process, and threaten the role of veracity in American political discourse and reporting. However, if more Americans latch on to the Trump administration’s us versus them mentality when thinking about the media, it will be impossible for the media to continue as a news source that has any credibility or trust. Instead, the the Trump administration could become the only source for information. One way Trump seeks to do this is by changing libel laws protected under the first amendment. The most effective way of achieving this is to get the Supreme Court to overturn the original ruling of New York Times vs. Sullivan. In introducing a new Supreme Court Judge, this seemingly far-fetched goal could become a reality. With libel laws altered, we could be entering an even more treacherous era of government propaganda. However, despite the number of people who trust the administration, there are almost the same number of people do not. Even if the Trump administration finds a loophole to the constitution and diminishes freedom of speech in the form of the media, there will be an outcry from a large amount of the population. Therefore, John McCain’s pessimistic view that we could be heading towards a dictatorship is far more farfetched than some believe, but does remain possible.