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Trump’s war on the media

By Jules Witcover

Donald Trump’s election campaign, unnerved by the latest CNN poll showing him trailing prospective Democratic president nominee Joe Biden by 14 percentage points, is threatening to sue the cable news network. The campaign alleges the poll fails to reflect Trump’s strong Republican support in the country.

CNN General Counsel David Vigilante has fired back, saying the charge “is the first time in its 40-year history that CNN has been threatened with legal action because an American politician and campaign did not like CNN’s polling results.” He wrote that such allegations “have typically come from countries like Venezuela or other regimes where there is little or no respect for a free and independent media.”

By contrast, the most recent Real Clear Politics survey has Biden leading Trump by eight percentage points, with 56 percent disapproval of Trump. In all, the Trump campaign assault on CNN reflects a broadening of the sitting president’s ongoing effort, in Vigilante’s words, “to muzzle speech it does not want voters to read or hear.”

On last Sunday’s weekly CNN show “Reliable Sources,” host Brian Stelter invited a senior Trump legal adviser, Jenna Ellis, as a guest, and she proceeded to go on the offensive against CNN and the host, in effect seeking to wrest control of the exchange with a filibustering attack on both the show and its host.

She criticized the survey as “a stunt and a phony poll to cause voter suppression” that “no pollster in the world would stand behind.” Stelter defended it as using standard procedure and hit back at her, telling her at one point she was “wasting my time.” The exchange revealed the intensity of the Trump campaign to cast the news media as, in Trump’s own words, “the enemy of the people.”

Perhaps not since the 1950s anti-communist era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin has the First Amendment guarantee “of freedom of speech or of the press” has been so openly and aggressively assaulted as the Trump campaign is now undertaking.

It may reflect a growing recognition by Trump and his anti-press minions, after three years of his reign of authoritarian and dictatorial impulses, that millions of American voters are beginning to recognize the peril to their most basic rights in our democratic process of self-government.

Recent events have spurred a national wake-up call, from the near-paralysis of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic to the outpouring of protest over racially charged police brutality. Trump has been unmasked as an incompetent and even corrupt custodian of our domestic and international affairs and responsibilities less than five months before the next presidential election.

Now more than in recent times, the constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of the press are imperative, to keep the American public reliably informed of the actions and intentions of our freely elected officials.

For these reasons, the expanding Trump war on our free press, including the world of cable and network television that is ever more dominant each day, must be recognized and resisted as the real enemy of an informed American people.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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