Donald Trump’s personal Twitter feed is frequently so ALL-CAPS erratic, impulsive and exclamatory, it’s easy for members of the media-political complex to dismiss his more outrageous suggestions as unserious while ignoring the fact that, after all, he’s president of the United States.
Collective shrugging, yawning and eye-rolling are perhaps understandable when the president tweets, as he did early Thursday morning, that a major congressional panel—in this case, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—should investigate the “Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!”
Yet it could well be folly to treat Trump’s 140-character outbursts as a sort of new normal, especially when the government he heads is coping with nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea, an unprecedented lethal gun massacre in Las Vegas, catastrophic devastation in Puerto Rico, and a declaration by the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, that White House chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (whose “moron” epithet, reported by NBC, apparently provoked Trump’s tweet in the first place) are the only public officials standing between the American people and chaos.
“I hope people don’t just laugh it off, because this matters,” former CBS News anchor Dan Rather told The Daily Beast about the president’s suggestion that Congress give the Fourth Estate the third degree. “No one wants to be preachy about it, but a free and truly independent press is necessary; a fighting press is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy. There is a reason that it’s enshrined in the First Amendment.”
Rather, who these days anchors an interview show on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV and presides over his News And Guts Media production company, continued: “There is a danger in not taking this seriously.”
Trump’s call for a congressional investigation of the networks, especially of NBC News which broke the Tillerson “moron” story, “is another heavy move in the direction of authoritarianism. And authoritarianism can lead to tyranny. It’s heavy to say that, but it’s appropriate under the present circumstances.”
Trump’s threatening tweet might not seem so outlandish when considered in the light of modern history. The late Frank Stanton, who was president of CBS for a quarter century, was hauled before a House committee in 1971 and cited for contempt of Congress (and narrowly escaped jail with a vote on the House floor to rescind the contempt citation) after he refused to provide the government with outtakes of the controversial Vietnam-era documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, which chronicled the Nixon administration’s propaganda machine to ramp up military spending and peddle an unpopular war.
Indeed, two powerful House committee chairman at the time, F. Edward Hebert of Armed Services and Harley Staggers of Commerce and Investigations, were essentially accusing CBS of perpetrating fake news—and Staggers’s committee voted overwhelmingly to put Stanton behind bars.
But more than four decades later, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he doubts such an assault on the constitution would occur today.
“We don’t investigate freedom of speech or any exercise of it,” Swalwell said in an interview, adding that many of his Republican colleagues privately scoff at Trump’s antics. “For the president, this is a method of undermining a legitimate investigation of contacts that he and his team had with a country [Russia] that interfered in our election. It’s not going to distract investigators from our work, and just by the look of it, it’s not going to distract or deter the journalists in this country from doing their jobs.”
Swalwell added: “It’s unfortunate that this comes from the president of the United States, who’s supposed to be the guardian of the Constitution and all of the freedoms it provides…It’s sad to see this serious office so diminished, and the respect that people give the office reduced because of his statements. The next occupant is going to have a big restoration project on their hands.”
Swalwell’s Intelligence Committee colleague and fellow California Democrat, Rep. Jackie Speiers, told The Daily Beast: “The president needs to take a Government 101 class, stop dictating to Congress how it should handle so-called fake news, stay in his own lane, and practice being presidential.”
Officially, the White House is being coy about whether the president is in earnest concerning his call for a congressional investigation of the networks.
At Thursday’s briefing in the James S. Brady Press Room, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to answer CNN senior correspondent Jim Acosta’s question—“Should Congress investigate news outlets?”—and instead took the opportunity to bash the press and lecture journalists for not being sufficiently positive about Trump’s many brilliant accomplishments.
“The president is an incredible advocate of the First Amendment,” Sanders claimed. “But with the First Amendment, with those freedoms, also come responsibilities. And you have a responsibility to tell the truth, to be accurate…I think we need to move towards a certainly more fair, more accurate and frankly more responsible news media for the American people.”
Media lawyer and press advocate Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University if Maryland, said she doubts the Republican-controlled Congress—which has been notably resistant to the legislative proposals of the Republican president—will follow Trump’s advice.
“Members of Congress have more sense than to investigate the mainstream media; it’s a waste if time,” Dalglish said, adding that Trump’s “fake news” label for “reputable and longstanding news organizations” is “irrational and completely inappropriate,” and only demonstrates that Trump “is angry at the media for covering the office of the president of the United States…I think most Americans know the difference between crap and professional journalists.”
Former ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, meanwhile, predicted that Trump’s media war will ultimately come to naught.
“His campaign against so-called fake news is really a campaign against factual information that he finds distasteful—because it points out his failures,” Donaldson told The Daily Beast. “That campaign will lose in the end. It has to. The American public is not going to support the idea that factual news should be driven off the stage. It won’t happen.”