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Will Trump launch frontal attack on 1st Amendment?

Yesterday an Envirotalk commentator linked to a recent Talking Points Memo story with the provocative headline: “Trump Administration Considering Amending or Abolishing 1st Amendment.” Before getting too stirred up, do read the entire story — which is largely a transcript of part of an interview with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus was asked whether the president would pursue changing the constitution’s 1st Amendment in order to accomplish his stated goal of making it easier to successfully sue for libel. Priebus’s response: “(T)his is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue.”

Notice the wiggle room in that answer. Priebus is smart enough to know that making any change to the constitution is a lengthy and difficult process. Trying to constrict freedom of the press could be particularly challenging because it would represent a fundamental change to our form of government (note that this is the very first amendment). Why would Trump spend precious political capital on an initiative that was likely to fail while serving to reinforce fears that he is a thin-skinned, power-hungry authoritarian? And why would Republicans rally behind Trump if it threatened to paint the party with the same brush as it struggled to hold onto control of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections?

Short answer: They wouldn’t. Trump may not understand this but Priebus surely does. That’s why his statement might be read as merely a trollish shot across the bow. The goal seems to be to cultivate fear within the press corps by presenting Trump as a mad man who could do the unthinkable. However, he ultimately isn’t likely to make a frontal assault on the media. Instead, it will come through a drip, drip, drip of attacks that are barely noticed by the general public.

As a case in point, in the last week the Federal Communication Commission opened an investigation into an off-color joke comedian Stephen Colbert told about Trump. Meanwhile, a West Virginia reporter was arrested after trying to ask a question of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Some administration actions are even more subtle. For example, Jonathan Peters reports that “The administration has taken actions that marginalize mainstream journalists and kneecap their reporting: barring the Times, CNN, and others from a gaggle in Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office; declining to hold regular on-camera briefings; and calling on sycophantic news outlets at press conferences where Trump or his aides are expecting tough questions. My fear is that the actions and rhetoric will inspire state and local press persecution unlike anything we’ve seen at those levels.”

This is another good reason why green activists should be careful in how they hold the news media accountable. It’s one thing to strive for more thorough and balanced coverage; it’s something else to disparage the mainstream press in a way that further undercuts its standing with the public. This isn’t always an easy tightrope to walk, but it’s a walk we need to learn to do better.

— S. Salmi


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