Editorial cartoon (12/3/2017)

Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it."

Dictators know this well. That’s why totalitarian regimes seize TV and radio stations, smash the presses of independent newspapers, jail journalists and, in the modern day, censor the internet.

Here in the U.S., creating a media that is a mouthpiece for the ruling regime is done more subtly, but that’s happening with Donald Trump and his billionaire allies.

Trump has vilified and sought to discredit any media outlet that dares to report news that is not flattering to him. His attacks on the media have even incited threats of violence against reporters. Less visible are his efforts to use government power to threaten the independent media and to hand over control of key broadcast outlets to his corporate supporters.

During his campaign rallies, Trump’s attacks on the media led to reporters being physically threatened. The White House even tweeted a video showing Trump physically attacking an actor labeled as CNN. A Republican candidate, now a congressman, actually criminally assaulted a reporter who asked a challenging question. The threats to reporters became so severe that the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually inveighs against attacks on the press in Third World dictatorships, felt it necessary to condemn Trump. They declared that Trump represented “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.”

Recently, the Trump administration filed a court action to stop the ATT-Time Warner merger. There may be good reasons to question a merger of two large conglomerates, but that is not the aim of Trump’s Justice Department. Trump’s goal is to undermine the independence of CNN, which while politically neutral, has done its journalistic duty of accurately reporting on the Trump administration. Trump has never before acted to stop a merger. In fact, Trump’s Department of Justice previously supported the ATT-Time Warner merger, but now the Trump administration has made clear that the price for dropping their opposition to the merger is spinning off CNN. They want to abuse governmental power to make CNN more like Fox News.

It’s not surprising that Trump likes Fox News, which does a good imitation of the government-controlled media in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Their efforts to slant the news to boost Trump and bury any unfavorable events is so extreme it’s laughable. In an Onion-worthy example, on the morning that key Trump campaign leaders were indicted, Fox News switched from covering the criminal activities of Trump associates to a groundbreaking investigative report on the best place to put cheese on a cheeseburger. Really!!!

The Trump administration is also changing the rules to allow one of its corporate backers to take over local TV stations across the country. Trump’s appointees are weakening longstanding restrictions on excessive concentration of media ownership in order to allow the insistently right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group to control TV stations in almost three-quarters of the country. Sinclair uses its media dominance to insert rightist propaganda into local TV newscasts. An example is the reports on Sinclair stations in Alabama that downplay accusations of pedophilia against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate.

Right-wing billionaires are aggressively taking over important media outlets. Sheldon Adelson seized the largest paper in the swing state of Nevada and the notorious Koch brothers are bankrolling a sizable chunk of Meredith Corp.'s purchase of Time Inc., publisher of Time magazine as well as People, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and others.  

Dictators and would-be dictators hate a free press. Patriotic Americans, who cherish our democracy, appreciate the essential role of a free press that can uncover the stories that the powerful want hidden.

Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as a director of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.

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