Staff Columnist

Journalists 'colluding' in the open


FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists at the Oval Office of the White House after the AHCA health care bill was pulled before a vote in Washington, U.S. March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists at the Oval Office of the White House after the AHCA health care bill was pulled before a vote in Washington, U.S. March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Gazette joined more than 300 newspapers last week in publishing editorials raising concern over President Donald Trump’s hostility toward journalists.

Trump’s response was predictably negative. He posted on Twitter the day the editorials were published to say, “Now the Globe is in COLLUSION with other papers on free press.” We know from Trump’s response to his legal woes that he has an evolving interpretation of what collusion means, but last week’s editorial campaign clearly does not meet the definition.

All of the major dictionaries include “secret” in their definitions of collusion. Merriam-Webster also includes “illegal or deceitful,” and Dictionary.com has “especially with evil or harmful intent.” Our editorials were published with the goal of attracting readers, the opposite of secretive.

The free press editorials were organized by newsroom leaders at The Boston Globe, and promoted openly. Nobody from The Gazette had direct contact with Boston Globe staffers, and I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of the newspapers participating. We heard about it the same way Trump did, through widely circulated news articles and blog posts.

I have only worked for local news organizations, so I can’t tell you for certain what goes on in elite newsrooms. Yet even if editors and producers are meeting in back alleys and smokey rooms to plan negative stories about government leaders, that activity would be well protected by the First Amendment. Not collusion, and certainly not illegal.

Of course, most of Trump’s comments also are protected by the First Amendment. He is allowed to say journalists are his enemies. But what is more concerning than Trump’s petty criticisms is that he has repeatedly suggested he would use his official capacity as president to curtail journalists’ free speech rights.

Trump said during his 2016 campaign he would “open up our libel laws,” giving the government enormous power to punish journalists and ordinary citizens alike when they make disputed claims.

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Last year, Trump questioned whether major television news operations should lose their broadcasting authority for making inaccurate reports about his administration. He wrote on Twitter, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

And Trump has regularly called to increase taxes and regulations on the online retailer Amazon, apparently in retaliation for negative coverage in the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Trump has little ability to follow through on his legal and legislative threats because presidents rightly don’t have the power to unilaterally change laws or revoke broadcasting licenses. What is dangerous, though, is some Americans think he should have such power. Polling data published by Ispos this month showed 26 percent of Americans believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”

Trump’s war of words will persist. For the sake of our republic, I pray it doesn’t turn into another kind of war.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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