Pop culture has turned former President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” into the butt of jokes 45 years after the famously ruthless and paranoid president created it, in part, to monitor journalists. A new Trump administration effort to compile a database of journalists and “media influencers” is not the least bit funny and represents a clear threat to First Amendment rights.
Congress should intervene to stop the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to monitor 290,000 global news outlets. The department has advertised for a contractor to help compile a database of journalists, editors, foreign correspondents and bloggers to identify top “media influencers,” and said it wants the outlets’ “sentiment” to be included in the data collected.
Sentiment apparently refers to the contractor’s analysis of whether the coverage represents pro-Trump, neutral or anti-administration coverage.
It’s particularly threatening that this move comes from a president who regularly uses the term “fake news” to discredit mainstream news outlets that practice nothing more dangerous than reporting on Donald Trump’s words and deeds. The fake-news label has been used to confuse citizens as they try to inform themselves about what their government is up to.
The importance of press freedom in this context cannot be overstated. Democracy cannot survive if the public does not keep informed or is deliberately misinformed.
Traditionally the United States has been a world model of press freedoms, providing fertile ground for a vast and diverse society where all views can be shared. Debating the news and criticizing those who provide it is a well-practiced American pastime and symbolic of our free society.
One of the marks of authoritarian political leaders is their penchant for attacking legitimate news outlets that cover them. Sowing divisions and undermining news media credibility help them consolidate control. That’s why authoritarian leaders in Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Myanmar and Venezuela so regularly arrest journalists and put them on trial.
When Trump tells bald-faced lies, like saying he “won in a landslide” or had the “biggest audience ever” for his inauguration, he says the media is lying when they report facts that counter his false claims. His constant drumbeat of fake-news denunciation threatens to silence the truth.
There can be no good reason for Homeland Security to collect data on news media operations. The solicitation calls for monitoring of “media coverage in terms of content, volume, sentiment, geographical spread, top publications, media channels, reach, ... top posters, influencers, languages, momentum, circulation.”
Trampling on the First Amendment is wrong and dangerous. Seeking to identify and label coverage is a slippery slope in a free and democratic society. Even at a time of heightened vigilance against foreign meddling in U.S. elections, a government list of “media influencers” can only serve to chill those who are contributing to the marketplace of ideas.