This article was originally published in the Dec. 9, 2017, edition of the Sun.
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WORCESTER, Jan. 17, 2019 — President Donald Trump shot back this week at what he calls “fake news” by threatening to defund cities in which “subversive or treasonous” media are based. “Met with GOP lawmakers to discuss setting up a Dept. of Truth. Must weed out fake news outlets before 2020 Election – Bad for Democracy!” President Trump tweeted yesterday morning.
At a White House press conference later in the day, White House Press Secretary Troy Chamberlain justified the move and outlined how the administration could apply pressure to make the so-called “fake news outlets” unwelcome in communities.
“Nothing is more important to America than its voters making well-informed choices based on facts,” said Mr. Chamberlain. “Rogue media that chooses to ignore the facts or make up its own truth is a poison. The last administration failed to take action, so it’s time we eliminate the threat to our citizens.”
Mr. Chamberlain went on to suggest steps the White House and Congress could take to wage the battle. These included withholding payments from the Highway Trust Fund. This was the carrot Congress dangled in 1984 to get states to raise their drinking ages to 21. All but five states acceded to that request.
Mr. Chamberlain also mentioned working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to deny grants to law enforcement agencies in cities and towns that “harbor fake news outlets.”
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While the law enforcement grant denials would be at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, options to withhold other funding would require approval by Congress, where the GOP continues to hold a tenuous majority.
The administration’s official criterion for “fake news” is unclear, but most analysts believe it will come from the Florida-based nonprofit organization, The American Ideals Law Center. Founded by conservative blogger Hunter Hathaway in 2009, the AILC posts a “Daily Blacklist” of writers and periodicals it deems anti-Trump. Mr. Hathaway was one of President Trump’s early financial supporters during the 2016 campaign, and in 2018 briefly worked as Chief Strategist in the White House.
Even before the press conference, mayors and governors across the country responded to President Trump’s tweet.
“In 1989, we became a Sanctuary City for all immigrants,” wrote San Francisco Mayor Mary Chin in a press release. “In 2019, we choose to become a Sanctuary City for all free speech.”
Antonio Calabrese, a Clark University political science professor who studies government and the media, notes that a vast majority of the outlets on the AILC blacklist are located in states that voted blue in 2016 and 2018.
“The blacklist is updated every evening, but there are always 700 to 1,000 outlets, from little community broadsheets to the big nationals,” said Dr. Calabrese. “Some, like The New York Times, are consistently on that list. But even little mom-and-pop weeklies can be targeted if they print a letter to the editor that rubs someone the wrong way and it gets reported to the AILC.”
Dr. Calabrese said that in the last month, for example, The Boston Globe, Worcester Sun, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, InCity Times, Shrewsbury Chronicle, Springfield Republican, WGBH, WICN, WCUW, Worcester Community Cable Access, and even the St. Mark’s Parish Bulletin are among dozens of “fake news” outlets that have landed on the AILC blacklist for publishing or broadcasting news or opinion considered unfavorable to the Trump administration.
President Trump’s pecuniary threats are still nebulous and could require years to carefully thread their way through Congress first, and the courts later. Large metropolises like Boston and New York would be pretty much impervious to the fiscal fallout, but rural spots could feel the pressure.
“If it’s a matter of keeping a weekly newspaper in town or losing federal funding for police equipment, well, that’s going to be a hard choice for us small communities to make,” said Frank Anderson, editor of the Barre Gazette. “I hate to say it, but if I thought I was going to end up on that blacklist, I’d be more conservative in what I chose to print.”
President Trump’s tweet is the latest maneuver during a week of attacks on the media. In an interview on Fox News on Monday, President Trump said he would ask Congress to trim the budget by $500 million by defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. On Tuesday, he tweeted he was open to rescinding the Newspaper Advertising Act, which mandates legal proceedings, such as divorces and bankruptcies, be published in a “newspaper of record.” And at a re-election campaign rally in New Hampshire on Wednesday, he suggested taking away the U.S. Postal Service subsidy for print media.
“The Postal Service gives newspapers and magazines subsidies equaling half a billion dollars,” he said. “So even if you don’t read Time magazine, your tax money is still helping to mail it out. We’re going to get rid of that. We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this fast.”
(President Trump failed to note that the USPS receives less than 1 percent of its annual budget – specifically to cover postage for the visually impaired — from taxpayer money.)
“What he’s doing fast is dismantling free speech,” countered Calabrese.
“President Trump promises he can save money by chipping away here and there. And he thinks if he can silence his critics at the same time, even better. “But the thing is, once that freedom’s gone, it’s never, ever coming back.”
President Trump’s disdain for the media is as well-known as it is mutual. But does the White House have the power to shut down a media outlet by labeling unflattering stories as “fake news”? Legally, probably not. But continually taking potshots against the news, from mocking a reporter’s disabilities to pretending to bodyslam CNN, only serves to, little by little, extinguish the light of journalism. And we’re living in times when we could use all the light we can get. Also, kudos if you noticed the Ministry of Truth reference from “1984.”