In America, the press is referred to as the Fourth Estate, serving as “an additional check on the power of the government and as a way to raise public awareness of issues of national importance.” Because of the nature of the job, every president in U.S. history has had a relationship with the press. Governing the nation would become much more challenging if a president could only communicate with those within earshot. Every election cycle, as we vote for a candidate, we also vote for that candidate’s views on freedom of the press. For this reason, it is essential that we educate ourselves about candidates’ views on this crucial component of the First Amendment. This article is designed to serve as a starting point to educate people about the sentiments that the 2020 Presidential candidates have expressed or implicitly demonstrated about freedom of the press. We also strongly encourage readers to do their own research on the topic.
Donald J. Trump
President Trump has had a complicated relationship with the press during his first term in office. During his campaign, he began calling the press the enemy of the people. Those within the journalism community have expressed their concern that this rhetoric aims to whither the nation’s trust in the Fourth Estate. A Pew Research Center study in late 2019 showed that “a plurality of Republicans consistently distrusted most of the news media (except for Trump-supporting media like Fox News), while pluralities of Democrats tended to trust them. In a Pew survey conducted in mid-March, 62% of respondents said the news media had exaggerated the risks from the COVID-19 virus.”
In an article from USA Today’s Ashley Pratte, the journalist expresses her concern: “It is important to remember that leadership comes from the top and America currently has a president who advocates for “body slamming” reporters, mocks and ridicules mainstream media networks and their anchors, calls the media the “enemy of the American people” refers to Democrats as “extremists” and an “angry, ruthless, unhinged mob,” joked about punching protesters in the face, and casts significant blame and name calls Democratic leadership. Trump must stop his own fear-mongering rhetoric against the news media and call for an end to this type of rhetoric overall.”
CBS’s Lesley Stahl claimed that in an off-camera interaction, Trump told her why he insults and attempts to discredit the press. His words were, “‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Another talking point from his 2016 campaign was his promise to take a “strong look” at libel laws. Politico cites the following statement from then-candidate Donald Trump: “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.” In 2018, he renewed this pledge after his personal lawyer filed a lawsuit against Buzzfeed. He then called the country’s libel laws a “sham.” In April, 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists shared that Trump’s re-election campaign sued The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN for “libel for opinions expressed by their columnists and contributors.” He has also been accused of attempting to revoke white house press credentials from reporters or news organizations he doesn’t like.
While all of this seems to villainize President Trump as the enemy of the press, he is far from the first president to have a negative relationship with them. Stanford Scholar James Hamilton points out that “few leaders readily invite scrutiny and welcome criticism.” Hamilton draws many parallels between Trump and Nixon on this issue. Nixon famously advised his cabinet, ” “Always remember, the men and women of the news media approach this as an adversary relationship. The time will come when they will run lies about you.” He later wrote to his aides ““It is very important in terms of the final  campaign that the media be effectively discredited.” The reality is, President Trump doesn’t get many points for originality when it comes to discrediting and mistrusting the press. For more information on this historical precedent, check out History.com’s article about presidential feuds with the media.
Another resource that is useful for evaluating candidates’ relationships with the press is a voter guide provided by Free Press Action. You can access the guide here.