The New York Times has been quite dismissive of the right to free speech when the right wing is involved, calling it a “canard” abused by racists. Yet the Times can be quite protective when it comes to (imaginary) threats to its own free speech, as shown by two stories on Monday
Both stories reacted to a provocative tweet by Donald Trump -- a video repurposing an old clip of Trump doing a bit at WrestleMania, showing him clothes-lining another man, but with a CNN icon projected over the face of the “victim” of the “assault,” Vince McMahon (quotation marks provided, since the media doesn’t seem to realize that wrestling is fake).
First off, Trump and his mean tweet have already ruined sensitive media columnist Jim Rutenberg’s (and America's) Fourth of July holiday, according to his Monday piece for the front of Business Day, “Celebrating Independence As Free Press Is Besieged.”
Happy Birthday, America, I guess.
You’re old enough to know that you can’t always have a feel-good birthday. And let’s face it: This Fourth of July just isn’t going to be one of them.
How could it be when one of the pillars of our 241-year-old republic -- the First Amendment -- is under near-daily assault from the highest levels of the government?
When the president of the United States makes viciously personal attacks against journalists -- and then doubles down over the weekend by posting a video on Twitter showing himself tackling and beating a figure with a CNN logo superimposed on his head? (Every time you think he’s reached the limit …)
How could it be when the president lashes out at The Washington Post by making a veiled threat against the business interests of its owner, Jeff Bezos, suggesting that his other company, Amazon, is a tax avoider?
(Where have we seen that sort of thing before -- Russia maybe?)
For those who cherish a robust free press, it’s hard to feel much like partying after witnessing how some cheered Representative Greg Gianforte, Republican of Montana, for body slamming a reporter for The Guardian, Ben Jacobs. His sin: asking unwelcome questions.
Then again, it wasn’t out of step with President Trump, whose weekend tweet appeared to promote violence against CNN -- which, some argued, violated Twitter’s harassment policies -- certainly undercut Mr. Gianforte’s message of contrition.
A text box: “Near-daily assaults on the First Amendment by the White House.” Never mind that Rutenberg's own media colleague James Risen has called Barack Obama a threat to press freedom.
Rutenberg found another over-hyped conservative “threat,” a toughly worded ad by the National Rifle Association:
Look no further than the new National Rifle Association advertisement. In it, the conservative radio and television star Dana Loesch angrily describes how “they” -- whoever they are -- “use their media to assassinate real news,” contributing to a “violence of lies” that needs to be combated with “the clenched fist of truth.”
Rutenberg found a far-left opiner to smear the NRA:
Given that the ad was for a pro-gun group, this sort of thing “tends toward incitement,” Charles P. Pierce wrote in Esquire. (Added context: The N.R.A. chief Wayne LaPierre recently called “academic elites, political elites and media elites” America’s “greatest domestic threats.”)
Rutenberg then slammed a couple of Trump-supporting conservative personalities.
The Fox News host Sean Hannity has urged the Trump administration to force reporters to submit written requests in advance of the daily White House press briefing, which, he said, should be narrowly tailored to specific topics the administration wants to talk about.
Mr. Hannity’s good buddy Newt Gingrich went one better, suggesting that administration officials fully close the briefing room to the news media, which he has called “a danger to the country right now.”
What’s most extraordinary in all of this is how many people calling for curtailments on the free press are such professed “constitutionalists” and admirers of the founders.
So this, our 241st birthday, seems just the time to invite some of our forebears to remind us -- including those at the top of the government -- why a free press is so important.
There followed a solemn list of quotes by honored American leaders of the past defending free speech (never mind the paper’s own calls for restrictions on political speech in the case of Citizens United, and its current ambivalent attitude toward right-wing expression).
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Also taking Trump’s latest provocation all too solemnly, and protective of his own patch of career turf, media reporter Michael Grynbaum Monday A10, “Trump, in Latest Bout With Media, Conjures Physical Fight With a Foe.”
President Trump posted a short video to his Twitter account on Sunday in which he is portrayed wrestling and punching a figure whose head has been replaced by the logo for CNN.
The video, about 28 seconds long, appears to be an edited clip from a years-old appearance by Mr. Trump in WrestleMania, an annual professional wrestling event. The clip ends with an onscreen restyling of the CNN logo as “FNN: Fraud News Network.”
Cartoonish in quality, the video is an unorthodox way for a sitting president to express himself. But Mr. Trump has ratcheted up his attacks on the news media in recent days -- assailing CNN and crudely insulting the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” -- while defending his use of social media as “modern day presidential.”
Reporters predictably wrung their hands in fake fright.
The wrestling video, which was also posted to the official @POTUS Twitter account, stirred criticism, disbelief and dumbfoundedness. Some journalists denounced its portrayal of violence as dangerous, saying it could incite attacks or threats against news media employees.
“I think it is unseemly that the president would attack journalists for doing their jobs, and encourage such anger at the media,” said Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times.
The president’s allies say that his attacks on the news media are justified, arguing that the president is merely defending himself from coverage that his supporters view as biased. Mr. Trump’s war of words with CNN is especially popular with his voter base.
News media advocates, however, have raised alarms about a recent spate of arrests and assaults on working journalists, including a high-profile episode in which a Montana congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a reporter for The Guardian, breaking his glasses. (Mr. Gianforte, a Republican, went on to win a House seat the next day. He later apologized to the reporter.)
Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually focuses on countries where reporters’ freedoms are curtailed, say they are concerned that Mr. Trump’s campaign-trail rebukes of news organizations are now being issued from the pulpit of the White House.
“Targeting individual journalists or media outlets, on- or off-line, creates a chilling effect and fosters an environment where further harassment, or even physical attack, is deemed acceptable,” Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a statement on Sunday, adding that Mr. Trump’s comments may embolden “autocratic leaders around the world.”
Grynbaum at least got around to the conservative media bias argument near the end.
Some White House aides said privately on Sunday that the president was being held to a double standard. They argued that Mr. Trump’s video was akin to a recent exchange on MSNBC, in which the host, Chris Matthews, was discussing Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and jokingly praised the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for ordering the execution of his son-in-law.
Ari Fleischer, who was a press secretary to President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that he found Mr. Trump’s video to be “in poor taste.” But he added: “The reason POTUS does it is because the press has made themselves so unpopular. It’s a fight POTUS actually wins w much of the country.”