The True Enemies of Press Freedom Have Arrived, and Neither is Named 'Obama'

Donald Trump and fellow billionaire Peter Thiel represent an existential threat to press freedom, and too many of us are cool with it.
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Donald Trump and fellow billionaire Peter Thiel represent an existential threat to press freedom, and too many of us are cool with it.

The New York Times' James Risen is by most accounts an outstanding journalist. But being an accomplished reporter evidently doesn't immunize him from jumping aboard the outrage machine, at one time claiming that President Obama is the worst [you name it] ever. Specifically, two years ago today, Risen told columnist Maureen Dowd that the president is "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation."

A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.

We should probably grant Risen a bit of latitude here. At the time he was under considerable pressure from the Justice Department going all the way back to the Bush administration for his reporting on a Bill Clinton-era CIA operation involving Iran's nuclear weapons program. Risen repeatedly and justifiably refused to give up his source for the 2006 story, inciting the Bush and Obama administrations to issue subpoenas for Risen's testimony (Attorney General Holder renewed the Bush subpoena in 2009). In January 2015, the Times reported that Risen wouldn't be forced to testify, ending his ordeal. 

Regardless, it was the Bush DOJ that first issued the subpoena,making the title of "greatest enemy of press freedom" an exclusively Bush-era honorific.

Beyond Risen's specific case, there's simply no way Obama is the "greatest enemy to press freedom." Any reasonable comparative analysis of the last several administrations reveals a very different viewpoint -- that, yes, other previous chief executives have been about the same if not worst than Obama on press freedom.

Assuming Risen was specifically referencing the records of U.S. presidents on press freedom, recent history tells us the following:

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there haven't been any American journalists jailed inside the U.S. by the Obama DOJ, save for several journalists detained in Ferguson, MO, during the protests there, but such actions can hardly be blamed on Obama. Roger Shuler, meanwhile, a blogger for something called "Legal Schnauzer," was arrested for contempt of court by Shelby County, Alabama authorities. And... that's it.

Comparatively, the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press listed at least four journalists who were arrested during the Bush administration. (For the record, there are zero journalist arrests listed by RCFP for dates after 2006. It's also worth noting that the Bush administration detained Al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera, at Guantanamo Bay.)

The upshot? The true enemies of press freedom are well-known and still at large. And, no, exactly none of those enemies is named "Obama." 

If events conspire to give us a Donald Trump presidency, we can rest assured that the new chief executive will not only arrest journalists like Risen who pose a threat to Trump's power, but lower-level journalists as well -- frankly, people like me and my colleagues here at The Daily Banter. I'm speculating, of course, but based on his track record so far, it's entirely within Trump's character to target literally anyone who challenges him -- or, yeah, anyone who mocks him.

Simultaneous to the rise of Trump, a Silicon Valley billionaire named Peter Thiel waged a legal war against Gawker by financing wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against the digital-media juggernaut. This week, Gawker was sold at auction to Univision and will soon shut down for good. Don't laugh. While Gawker has dealt in ethically questionably stories, it's a terrifying prospect to learn that any billionaire -- Thiel or Trump or Unknown -- could so easily choke-out opposition reporters and opinion journalists.

Meanwhile, we're rapidly learning new details about the connections between Trump and the Putin regime via the nominee's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who worked diligently for pro-Putin factions in Ukraine, allegedly banking $12 million from a slush-fund there. The reason this is important is that Putin is no fan of press freedom. Back in April:

Federal Security Service (FSB) officers raided the apartments of at least seven people, including at least three journalists, in Crimea today, according to press reports.

Russia's FSB security service executed the raids on suspicion that the people had called for Crimean independence in articles for Krym.Realii, the Crimean regional service of the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), according to press reports. Russian law provides for penalties of up to five years in prison for publicly calling for separatism. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

Crimea is, of course, Putin's imperial sandbox, with the Russian strongman having annexed the peninsula in 2014. Meanwhile, Putin's Russia is among 14 nations in which journalists have been murdered, yet hardly any prosecutions were pursued. These are Trump's people.

The New York billionaire has already gone to war against Univision's Jorge Ramos, and he's successfully banned The Washington Post from his press pool. If Trump's Twitter feed is any indication, The New York Times -- James Risen's paper -- could be next. The brutally chilling aspect of Trump's behavior is that it's unquestioningly endorsed by his disciples, like this man who screamed "traitors!" at the Trump press pool in Kissimmee, Florida last week.

It's a safe bet that when President Trump begins to imprison journalists, his legion of faithful will cheer for every perp walk. Likewise, Thiel's overwhelming assault on Gawker has been mostly applauded due to the site's harrowing reputation.

Nearly all Trump rallies feature the GOP candidate bashing reporters as "dishonest" and "sleazy" -- pointing his stubby fingers in the direction of the press pool. No wonder that old man went bananas, and on camera no less. To Trump's loyalists, Trump represents freedom, and the press represents oppression. Even this week, Trump surrogates, including Fox News Channel's Eric Bolling denied the veracity of the polls.

We're on the vanguard of a potentially tyrannical era, with Donald Trump waiting in the wings. If two-bit dictators and wealthy oligarchs can conspire with impunity against press freedom -- both constitutional freedom and extra-constitutional -- we're truly facing down real life enemies, rather than bogus ones like Obama. Sure, these could be isolated incidents, but once a line of attack is accepted and sanctioned, as Thiel's war against Gawker has been, it's difficult to turn back.