Commentary

Trump’s Dangerous War on Press Freedom

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the murder of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles, whose body was ripped in two by a car bomb on June 2, 1976. Over the next 11 days Bolles lingered in the hospital near death. Both legs and one arm were amputated in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to save his life.

Bolles had worked for years to expose the infiltration of Arizona politics by organized crime. He wrote long investigative articles about vast land fraud conspiracies that robbed the elderly of their life savings. He wrote about the bribery of politicians to facilitate these schemes, and he wrote about the involvement of the Mafia in Arizona’s gaming and sports industries. He worked tirelessly to expose public corruption and hold public officials accountable for their actions. In doing so, he was the eyes, ears and voice of public accountability.

Bolles investigated the type of people — con artists and mobsters — that Donald Trump has made a fortune partnering with for decades.

Many news organizations — including The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC and the Associated Press — have reported that Trump’s construction projects during the 1980s involved a who’s who of organized crime figures. A 1992 U.S. Senate report on Asian organized crime revealed that Trump casino executives were prosecuted for receiving kickbacks from the Chinese triads.

Within the past 10 years Trump partnered with Felix H. Sater, a convicted felon with ties to the Russian mob. Sater had previously been convicted of racketeering for his part in a stock manipulation scheme. Sater, who had also served a prison sentence for stabbing a man in the face with a broken margarita glass, was issued a Trump Organization business card identifying him as a “senior advisor” to Trump. Sater worked with Trump on a condo project in lower Manhattan that resulted in a civil fraud lawsuit. A criminal investigation was opened that was only closed after Trump agreed to settle the civil case.

More recently, Trump has been embroiled in three class action fraud lawsuits over the operation of Trump University, which has been accused of selling worthless education programs for as much as $35,000. “I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money,” Ronald Schnackenberg, a former sales manager for the defunct school testified in a sworn statement.

If Don Bolles were alive today there can be no doubt that he would be investigating Donald Trump, and there would be no doubt that Donald Trump would be attacking Don Bolles like he has attacked the rest of the press.

“I like scrutiny,” Trump told journalists at a press conference this week, before repeatedly maligning them as “dishonest,” “sleazy,” “disgusting” and “not good people” who “make me look very bad.”

Trump’s outrageous attacks are only the latest assault in a war on press freedom he has waged throughout his campaign, and which he told a journalist at the press conference he intends to carry on into the White House.

At his rallies, Trump has frequently belittled journalists, whom he keeps restricted to a small fenced pen. He’s called reporters “liars,” low-lifes” and “dishonest scum,” as he singles them out for ridicule before the jeering crowd.

“We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before,” Trump told journalists at one rally, promising to punish the publication of “purposely negative stories.”

“Donald Trump misunderstands — or, more likely, simply opposes — the role a free press plays in a democratic society,” said Thomas Burr, the National Press Club president. “Reporters are supposed to hold public figures accountable. Any American political candidate who attacks the press for doing its job is campaigning in the wrong country. In the United States, under our Constitution, a free press is a check on politicians of all parties.

“If we are to demand that other countries respect the tradition of a free press, we must also practice that here at home.”

But don’t expect any such demands from Trump if he’s elected president. He has defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against accusations of involvement in state-sanctioned violence against journalists. Putin pushed legislation through Russia’s federal assembly that strengthened criminal defamation laws and imposed greater censorship on online publishing. Trump has described Putin as “a man highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

The day after Trump launched his latest tirade against the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called upon the FBI to reopen an investigation into the unsolved murders of immigrant Vietnamese journalists on U.S. soil. Recent reporting by the online news site ProPublica established that the murdered journalists were likely targeted for their political views by death squads composed of former South Vietnamese army officers.

These murders are a stark reminder that failing to respect and protect press freedom has dangerous consequences.

“Around the world, the unsolved killings of journalists creates an environment of fear and self-censorship,” Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ, told ProPublica. “While journalist killings are rare in the United States, the same dynamic is at play.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York.