Donald Trump’s war on the news media is the great irony of his presidential campaign.
Ardent coverage of his every appearance and statement propelled him to the top of the Republican leader board and yet he frequently disparages journalists as “dishonest” and “losers.”
His latest reproach goes beyond name-calling. He threatens to change the historic role of the American press by making it easier for public officials to sue news outlets for libel if they don’t like what is said about them.
Here’s his exact rant on the subject at a Fort Worth, Texas, rally Friday at which he singled out the New York Times and Washington Post: “One of the things I’m going to do if I win -- and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading -- I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.
“We can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they are totally protected. You see, with me (as president), they’re not protected because I’m not like other people … I’m not taking their money. We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
In other words, he will pursue a publish and perish policy against the press. The kind demagogues embrace. Dare to say or write anything derogatory against them, and suffer severe consequences.
It is known as press control through intimidation. It works in Iran, China and other closed societies; not so in the United States, where free press and free speech are protected by the First Amendment, and Supreme Court rulings enforcing it.
Trump’s reference to the press being “totally protected” apparently referred to the landmark First Amendment decision in 1964 by the Supreme Court in New York Times versus Sullivan. An Alabama police official (L. B. Sullivan) sued the Times for publishing an advertisement describing “an unprecedented wave of terror” by police against civil rights demonstrators. Even though he wasn’t named in the ad, Sullivan said he had been defamed by its untruthfulness, sued the paper and won a half-million dollar libel award in the Alabama courts.
On appeal by the Times, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the ruling, concluding the First Amendment protected the press against libeling public officials -- even when the subject of false statements, as long as the press did not act with actual malice. The court defined actual malice as publishing accusations knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Fewer lawsuits by public officials resulted against the press. And hardly any that were filed survived the First Amendment test set out by the Supreme Court. The court later extended the free press principle to public figures as well. In recent years, many states have also passed laws to further protect the public, including the press, against meritless lawsuits aimed at discouraging the exercise of First Amendment freedoms.
Donald Trump sees these basic rights aimed at assuring the watchdog role of the press as a needless nuisance. He wants the news media to treat him “nice” or regret that they didn’t.
In this country it doesn’t work that way. If Trump is the next president, he will find it find it nigh impossible to “open up” the libel laws to suit his idea of what can and cannot be said about him and other public officials by the press and the public.
It would require modifying the constitution’s First Amendment. And that’s not something you can easily cut a deal on.
Bill Ketter is senior vice president for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.