Amid the all-round bafflement over Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican contest to secure the nomination for American President, some of the less front page-worthy but nonetheless important talking points have been lost. One of his statements pertains, with an almost immediate sense of foreboding, to journalism.
During a rally in Fort Worth Texas in late February, Trump, referring to media organisations, said: “One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
He added: “We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
Like most Trump statements, this not-veiled threat to news organisations may be of a piece with his trademark bluster, whose other iterations the American voter and the global news consumer have had to endure over the last few months. From the time it started becoming clear that his candidacy was not a jocular affair, we have been fed endless loops of the most avoidable information, the latest relating to the size of his member.
If the Trump Presidency becomes a reality — and at this stage, it is a big “if” — it is unlikely that such a threat will pass muster. If there is one thing that the ongoing campaign season has taught us, it is that Trump is more mercurial than anyone on the circuit. He declined to participate in the second Republican debate because he had had a tiff with Megyn Kelly during the first. Yet, he was there for the third debate last week and, by all accounts, behaved himself.
And yet, Trump is widely known for filing lawsuits, even when they generate more publicity than returns for him. His tendency to issue random threats goes beyond news organisations. When John McCain expressed support for Mitt Romney’s public denunciation of Trump, Trump told a reporter: “Oh, he did? Well, that’s not nice. He has to be very careful.” When asked to explain what he meant, Trump added: “He’ll find out.”
While such loose hooliganism is tragic coming from the person who might become the next American President, what do his threats really mean for America’s media landscape? Is it possible for a President Trump to browbeat news organisations into silence with a law that brings journalistic work under the cover of libel?
It goes without saying that it would be no less than horrific for public interest if journalists were unable to perform their work due to threats of legal action. It is telling that Trump named legacy publishers such as NYT and WaPo while issuing his threat. These are icons of American media, not Twitter trolls that Trump can bully into submission. And yet, his threat is already having a chilling effect. In February, Washington Post reported how a source for the NYT had chosen to remain anonymous for fear of being sued by Trump.
Back home, we see journos working under extremely difficult conditions merely to report from the ground. Be it in Delhi or Chhattisgarh they even face the prospect of physical violation. That said, the issue is not as black and white as our distaste for Trump would have us believe. In recent days, we have seen a pernicious version of journalists abusing their power to influence public opinion by doing things that can only be called illegal. A grim fallout of the charged atmosphere around the JNU standoff was the airing of doctored videos and the deliberate morphing of soundbites.
Many would argue that Kanhaiya is well within his rights, if he should so like, to slap a libel lawsuit against those channels that aired the doctored video. Indeed, the Delhi government has said it plans to file cases against three channels on the issue. Want as we might to see the media remain independent and like as we will to criticise the state meddling into media affairs, it would not be far off the mark to say that sections of the media, at least in this case, brought it upon themselves.
Should Donald Trump, master of the hifalutin, get his wish, it would be an unmitigated disaster. But perhaps in these polarised times, at home and abroad, the media too ought to remember that no matter you are Left or Right, no matter the gravity of the situation, you cannot indulge in unlawful activity and hope to get away scot-free because, well, you are the media.
The media’s credibility has already been chipped away over the years and these actions only erode it further. The media needs the public to stand up and support it in battles with powerful bullies. That will not happen unless the media cleans up its own act.