Most politicians seeking public office learn to deal with reporters who ask annoying questions and grandstanding TV personalities who think they’re bigger than the story, just like they learn how to respond to unprincipled attacks from their opponents.
Then there’s Donald Trump, who resents anybody who questions him and is more than willing to use his growing legends of angry white male followers to try to bully the media into submission.
The latest manifestation of this occurred recently when a reporter for a conservative news site was wrestled to the ground at a Trump rally while trying to ask the candidate a question. As has become standard operating procedure, the Trump camp’s version of the event differed substantially from what others saw–in other words, they lied.
The reporter, Michelle Fields, filed a criminal complaint against Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, alleging he violently grabbed her arm and pulled her to the floor. Lewandowksi denied the charge and Trump said later “it was probably made up,” but Fields has a bruised arm and Ben Terris, a reporter for the Washington Post, backed her account of the incident. CSPAN also caught the start of the assault on tape.
(Fields worked for Breitbart News, an online site that provides a conservative slant to the news of the day. In an embarrassing display of spinelessness, the toadies at Breitbart suggested that Fields may have identified the wrong person as her assailant. Fields and three of her colleagues resigned in protest.)
Trump regularly displays his contempt for the media. He has closed his rallies to reporters and news organizations he says have been unfair to him. Those Trump admits are grouped in pens, to which he directs the attention of his raucous crowds with comments like “What slime!”
Trump calls out reporters he doesn’t like by name, and at one point mocked a physically disabled reporter. “I hate them,” he has said. “Some of them are such lying, disgusting people…(They’re) among the most dishonest group of people I’ve ever met.”
But there’s more. If he gets elected president, Trump wants to “open up” America’s libel laws to make it easier for politicians to sue newspapers that publish things they don’t like. That would include that bastion of conservative thought The Wall Street Journal, which Trump threatened to sue for writing he knows nothing about U.S. foreign trade treaties.
Trump’s problem is that the First Amendment limits what men who dream of shutting down newspapers can actually do. Libel law is a three-part test. For a claim to be libelous, it must be false, defamatory, and published with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth.
The best defense against libel is the truth, so if I write that Trump is a bad businessman because he went bankrupt multiple times, won’t touch Wall Street because of all the money he owes the banks, and is an adulterer to boot, I’m good because it’s the truth.
No wonder Trump wants to muzzle the media.