Donald Trump Takes A Page From The Autocrat's Media Playbook

Revoking The Washington Post’s press credentials invites comparisons to governments known for cracking down on press freedom.
Donald Trump's attacks on the press has drawn comparisons to Russian's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Donald Trump's attacks on the press has drawn comparisons to Russian's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- On Monday evening, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement that “strongly and unequivocally condemns this latest act of hostility toward the press as a serious violation of press freedom.”

This latest infringement of press freedom didn't take place in Russia, Turkey, or Ecuador, countries with autocratic leaders whose hostility toward the the media usually prompts such condemnations from international advocacy groups. It happened in the United States.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced Monday afternoon on Facebook that his campaign was revoking The Washington Post’s press credentials after the paper, briefly, published a headline online that he considered unfair.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, better known for tracking press freedom abuses overseas, said that such an action “provides a ready made excuse for authoritarian leaders to crackdown further on independent journalists.”

Though Trump has benefited from excessive media attention this campaign cycle, he's simultaneously vilified journalists throughout and his campaign's waged a sustained assault on the the press. The "phony and dishonest" Post joined a media blacklist Monday that has already included Politico, Univision, Fusion, The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, Mother Jones, National Review, The Des Moines Register, and The Huffington Post. Even news organizations receiving credentials for rallies must agree to severe restrictions on their reporting.

Trump's demonstrated an authoritarian streak throughout the campaign, from describing pro-Democracy activists massacred by the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square as rioters to praising the strength of Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose country ranks 148 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index.

In December, Trump initially defended Putin when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough claimed the Russian leader had killed journalists. (Dozens of journalists have been killed in Russia in recent years, though their cases often go unresolved.) And in May, Trump suggested Amazon chief and Post owner Jeff Bezos would face an anti-trust investigation if he's a elected president, a threat some viewed as right out of Putin's playbook.

On Monday night, Fox News contributor Julie Roginsky also compared Trump to the Russian leader and said such infringements on the press should not happen in the U.S.

Trump's rhetoric and actions have also invited comparisons to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has aggressively clamped down on the press and whose country ranks 151 on the press freedom index. Some journalists have also likened Trump to former Italian Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, given the former reality star's savvy use of television to fuel his political rise and tendency to bully journalists asking tough questions.

In a Tuesday open letter to Trump, journalists from Univision News called his action against the Post "unprecedented and dangerous."

"There are all too many places on earth where political figures use whatever is at their disposal to punish and silence unfavorable news coverage," they wrote. "The U.S. is not one of those places."

Several journalists and foreign policy experts on Twitter also compared Trump's broadside against the Post to the behavior of authoritarian governments.

Trump's demagoguery and strongman rhetoric have raised questions throughout the campaign about what can, or cannot, happen in the United States. Brookings Institution fellow Robert Kagan has argued Trumpism may be a harbinger of fascism and some legal experts, alarmed by the GOP presumptive nominee's attacks on the press and judiciary, see "contempt for the First Amendment, the separation of powers and the rule of law."

Joel Simon, executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told HuffPost that Trump's tone and rhetoric, and actions of some of his supporters, "have gotten on our radar" this election cycle.

CPJ has investigated U.S.-based press freedom concerns in the past, but Simon emphasized in a recent interview that the organization's priority is to advocate for "journalists who are facing threats to their lives or threats to their freedom who are really in situations of imminent peril" -- grave concerns that currently rise above not providing credentials for events. Journalists from blacklisted news outlets had been able to attend Trump events in the past by lining up with the public, though Trump's security recently kicked out a Politico reporter who entered a rally with a general admission ticket.

"You don’t want to make too direct a comparison because it trivializes the challenges that journalists face in those countries," Simon said. "On the other hand, I do get nervous when politicians campaign so aggressively against the press because it sets the stage for, sort of softens up public opinion if you will, for policies that can be detrimental."

One key difference, Simon stressed, is that the U.S. has a legacy of institutions protecting speech, starting with the First Amendment. It's easier, he said, to turn such heated rhetoric into policy "where there are no institutions or limited institutions that could restrain it.”

Journalist Masha Gessen, who has written critically on Putin and left Russia in 2013 following the passing of anti-gay laws, has similarly expressed hope that U.S. institutions would serve as a bulwark against Trump's worst impulses. In a recent Slate interview, Gessen agreed that Trump's threat against Bezos was a Putin tactic, but noted that the U.S. has much stronger institutions supporting democracy.

"That’s the really huge difference between Trump and Putin," Gessen said. "The worst case scenario -- Trump comes to power -- I think we have to really ask the question, 'How much damage could he do to institutions in four years?'"

Charlotte Klein provided research assistance.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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