This isn’t new from the media, and not even new from Fox’s Chris Wallace, but historically ignorant nonetheless. Without even an Alien and Sedition Act to his name, Wallace accused Donald Trump of being the worst threat ever to press freedom in the nation’s history. The speech at the Washington DC Newseum came as part of a celebration of the First Amendment, which clearly didn’t include any real perspective on it:
“I believe that President Trump is engaged in the most direct sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history,” Wallace said to applause at the Newseum, a media museum in Washington, on Wednesday night.
“He has done everything he can to undercut the media, to try and delegitimise us, and I think his purpose is clear: to raise doubts when we report critically about him and his administration that we can be trusted. Back in 2017, he tweeted something that said far more about him than it did about us: ‘The fake news media is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.’”
Wallace recalled that retired admiral Bill McRaven, a navy Seal for 37 years, had described Trump’s sentiment as maybe “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime” because, unlike even the Soviet Union or Islamic terrorism, it undermines the US constitution.
Lest one think that this is a novel argument from Wallace, he made exactly the same argument in almost exactly the same words a little over two years ago. In fact, Wallace even used the same McRaven argument in this video op-ed for the Washington Post. Wallace’s speech last night was essentially a rerun of this:
Unfortunately, Wallace is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Rather than engage in well-tuned criticism about the hyperbole Trump uses in criticizing the press, Wallace simply ups the ante. The fact is that other presidents have been far worse when it comes to dealing with the press and in much more substantial ways, and Wallace should know it.
For instance, we have the Alien and Sedition Acts that American founding father John Adams signed into law at the very beginning of the Republic. The laws included provisions which made criticism of the government a criminal offense, and the Sedition Act portion lasted three years. The Adams administration used this act to arrest newspaper owners who aligned with Adams’ then-foe Thomas Jefferson, which seems to me to be somewhat more serious a threat to press freedom than just accusing them occasionally of “fake news.” Trump might foolishly gas on about the media being “the enemy of the people,” but Adams acted on it for three years.
Just over a hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson followed Adams’ lead in signing a new Sedition Act of 1918, which also used the cover of war to criminalize criticism of the government. While this one was enforced more on political dissenters rather than the media, especially Socialists, it could easily have applied to both. The Supreme Court even upheld this version of the Sedition Act in Abrams with a notable dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but Congress thankfully repealed it the next year anyway.
Those are just the legal attacks on press freedom, too. In between then and now, administrations used law enforcement rather than outright acts to achieve the same purpose. Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, for instance, sought James Rosen’s phone records to find his sources on national security reporting. Adam Schiff just did the same thing to John Solomon even without being president. How many reporters did the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover spy on and intimidate?
And … Donald Trump vents on Twitter. He cancels the tradition of the daily White House press briefing. He’s hyperbolically angry at the press and uses inflammatory and ill-advised rhetoric about the media being “the enemy of the people.” All of that is fodder for legitimate criticism, but it’s simply absurd to claim that Trump is assaulting press freedom, let alone “engag[ing] in the most direct sustained assault” on it in history. Hyperbolic, short-sighted, and ignorant statements like this do far more to “delegitimize” the supposedly independent media than a thousand Trump tweets about “fake news” do.
If Wallace is concerned about the way the public sees the media, he should recognize that the lack of confidence the public has in it long preceded Donald Trump — and might be one reason we have a President Donald Trump. Trump hasn’t delegitimized the media; media outlets have done a fine job at delegitimizing themselves. Wallace should spend his time exhorting his colleagues to quit crafting narratives and get back to reporting the news. And Wallace should really write a new speech while he’s at it. Did the Newseum know it was getting a rerun?