Will Journalism Be a Crime in a Second Trump Administration?

January 17, 2024
WatchDog Opinion banner

Under the first Trump administration, press officers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were at times openly hostile toward news media. At one point, an EPA building guard pushed Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer out of the building. Click above to see what happened. Source: EPA security video, as posted on AP YouTube channel.

WatchDog Opinion: Will Journalism Be a Crime in a Second Trump Administration?

By Joseph A. Davis

Environmental journalists are used to worrying about things that are endangered. So we think it’s time to add press freedom and democracy to the endangered list — that’s what’s at stake in the coming presidential election.

Some still remember the behavior of press officers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the time former President Donald Trump was in the White House. It was all about performative hostility toward the media.

A top EPA spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, called one reporter who asked for comment a “piece of trash.” After being denied admittance to a key public meeting, Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer was pushed out of the EPA building by a guard. And, of course, Trump was calling the news media the “enemy of the people.”

The WatchDog wrote about EPA’s media monitoring, troubling anti-sunshine trends, barring reporters from events and public criticism of articles it didn't like. And the Society of Environmental Journalists officially complained about Trump EPA press policies.


Trump insider Kash Patel said recently that

a second Trump administration would

prosecute journalists ‘criminally or civilly.’


For a taste of what could be ahead, note that Trump insider Kash Patel said recently that a second Trump administration would prosecute journalists “criminally or civilly.” (Ahem. We really need to say it: Journalism is not a crime.)

Patel’s for real. He held several roles in the 2017-2020 Trump administration, most recently as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense. Patel was appointed to that post during the time when Trump was plotting his coup.

Patel’s most recent remarks came in early December 2023 on Trump ally Steve Bannon’s podcast. Trump has not disavowed them.


Press freedom, democracy are deeply linked

The WatchDog normally tries to avoid taking sides in political conflict. But we do support press freedom. And — it now needs to be said aloud — we do support democracy.

What’s clearer now is that democracy and press freedom are part of the same package. Press freedom is important because democracy is important. Democracy is impossible without press freedom. Press freedom is impossible in a dictatorship.

Much of the mainstream media is still busy writing stories about a political horse race — and missing the point. The coming election is likely to be a referendum on democracy, reality and the rule of law. Could it be the last election?


Factual truth is one of the foundations of

journalism, and Trump and the MAGA

movement are trying to destroy it.


Factual truth is one of the foundations of journalism, and Trump and the “Make America Great Again” movement are trying to destroy it. Trump’s bold and constant lying undermines the idea that truth can even be known. Thus it also undermines whatever trust and credibility the news media have achieved. Trump harps constantly on this theme with his mantra about “fake news.”

This year, Trump told Univision that he could weaponize the Justice Department against his critics. Journalists may want to remember how central a role the DOJ plays in interpreting the Freedom of Information Act. Remember the “Ashcroft memo” during George W. Bush’s term?

Another of Trump’s purposes is to destroy or control the press by undermining the public’s trust in it. He is telling the nation not to believe their lying eyes — but to believe him instead, to believe the Goebbels “big lie.”


Trump ‘will target’ critical media

The response to Trump’s targeting of news media has been alarm from many quarters.

Reporters Without Borders’ U.S. Executive Director Clayton Weimers said: “Donald Trump and his advisors have made it clear that from Day One he’ll behave like a dictator in the White House who will target the independent media that criticize him. This should be disqualifying grounds for any candidate to lead a democratic nation, much less the country of the First Amendment. Americans of all political persuasions should condemn Trump’s authoritarianism that threatens their right to information.”

Another group, the Society of Professional Journalists, issued an official statement. “SPJ believes an independent and free press is solidly at the foundations of our Democracy. Journalists have always played an important role in the history and stability of this country by holding elected officials and government agencies to account. While we have heard former President Trump’s threats and vile commentary before, it remains no less concerning,” said SPJ National President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins. “We urge Americans — regardless of political allegiance — to condemn this kind of anti-democratic rhetoric from the former president or any other political figure.”

In April 2023, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Columbia Journalism School held a conference that asked: “What is the role of the press in protecting a fragile American democracy?” One answer at the meeting came from J-school Dean Jelani Cobb: “We need to not shy away from the idea that we [the press] are an explicitly pro-democracy enterprise.”


The threats to democracy

involve more than just attacks

on journalists and journalism.


The threats to democracy involve more than just attacks on journalists and journalism. The MAGA movement (or its extremist elements) has been harassing immigrants, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Indigenous tribes, Muslims, Jews and others. Journalists are to them just another minority group.

Many reporters have been trolled on social media. Some reporters still remember what it felt like, during the 2016 Trump campaign, to be herded into the “media pen” as Trump spoke of them contemptuously to his jeering followers.

Today, when he talks like that about others, like judges and prosecutors, they get death threats and swatting attacks. Government for the people and by the people is, well, different than government by death threat.

Will the MAGA mob swat journalists next? Should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put them on the endangered species list?

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: