There is a very good reason the Constitution’s Framers and Founding Fathers made “freedom of the press” a top priority in the young nation’s Constitution and included it in the Bill of Rights’ First Amendment. That reason has been reiterated by champions of freedom and democracy throughout history and that particularly includes from this nation’s founding continuing to the 21st Century threat posed by an aspiring tyrant. At least in free societies the concept of a free press is regarded as sacrosanct and until recently, that was the case in America. A little over a week ago, a former Daily Kos writer and activist now working at the The Intercept, Shaun King, discovered the harsh truth about being an activist journalist living in Trump’s America.
Democracy Now reported last week that Mr. King and his family were detained by Customs and Border Patrol agents at JFK International Airport and endured questioning about his activism in support of Black Lives Matter. Mr. King reported that after being called out by name, he and his family were taken to a “secluded questioning room” where the officer, who “had clearly been reading his tweets,” asked about his “support for the Black Lives Matter movement.” It is a sad commentary, but it appears that going forward there will be an increasing number of Americans facing detention, or at least heavy-handed government scrutiny, by Trump’s security forces based on the “sentiment” in what they write or say.
Whether it was Founding Father and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, or war hero and U.S. Senator John McCain, they concur with no small number of American leaders insisting that America as it was created cannot survive without a free press . Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786:
“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Well over two centuries later, and in response to the speech and actions of the “aspiring dictator” Trump, Senator John McCain defended the free press while he was in Munich Germany saying:
“We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve […] democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, […] we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time.”
Not to be outdone, Arizona’s other Republican Senator Jeff Flake took to the floor of the Senate to give a speech assailing Trump for perpetually attacking the media for factual reporting. Suffice it to say, even Republicans comprehend the importance of a free press for a bevy of reasons, but none more so than protecting democracy. Republicans cannot ignore the threat to democracy posed by Trump.
That is why it was, although sickening, not shocking that the anti-democracy Trump administration is targeting the free press by giving a federal law enforcement agency the authority to target Americans who express the “wrong sentiment” in what they write, share on social media, or insinuate in a recording. And let’s face it; the “wrong sentiment” includes anything contrary to what Trump thinks is the “right sentiment.”
Bloomberg reported that a FedBizOpps.gov posting by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the heading, “Media Monitoring Services” is nothing less than a devious “big brother” type maneuver if there ever was one. There was an attached Statement of Work that outlined precisely what the federal law enforcement agency planned to do to bring the media and many Americans into compliance with all things Trump; gather and monitor the activities of the public media and everything and everyone associated with it.
Now, it appears that Senator McCain’s warning about losing “our” personal liberties is not something that is going to happen “over time.” The threat from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security with an attack on the free press is a dangerous portent that the aspiring tyrant is attempting to keep pace with a rash of attacks on the media worldwide.
This is underway in America, “traditionally one of the bastions of press freedom,” where a powerful federal agency is planning to compile a comprehensive list of journalists, social media influencers, bloggers, and podcasters to monitor what they are “putting out to the public” with a particular interest in the “sentiment” they express.
As Michelle Fabio noted:
“We are entering potentially dangerous territory with the government keeping track of the ‘sentiment’ of American citizens in a Department of Homeland Security media database.”
The primary concern of the Trump administration is “the sentiment” being expressed by private American citizens, media organizations, bloggers, print journalists and Americans active on social media. It is unlikely that DHS is going to do the same level of monitoring of “foreign” sentiment towards America as the other intelligence agencies such as the NSA and CIA. This action is targeting domestic “sentiment” and although it is normal for dictatorships Trump aspires to emulate, it is an abomination in an alleged “free society” anywhere in the world, much less in the United States of America.
It is nothing less than an outrage in a liberal democracy that a federal agency is monitoring and compiling data on what the dictionary deems are private citizens’ “views of, or an attitude toward, or an opinion of a particular situation or event.” Only someone who has been comatose for the past two years is unaware that the prevailing sentiment in America, and around the world, toward Trump is overwhelmingly negative. It should terrify all Americans that expressing those sentiments is deemed “dangerous” enough to warrant Homeland Security putting them in a federal law enforcement database; something that is unprecedented except in dictatorships.
An organization that has spent the past nearly 40 years monitoring press freedom, Freedom House, “recently concluded that global media freedom has reached its lowest level in the past 13 years.” The organization places the blame for less press freedom on government threats to journalists and media outlets in “major democracies” and “authoritarian countries like Russia and China.” The report also noted that:
“It is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as
president of the United States [White House occupant] that fuel predictions of further setbacks in the years to come.”
This action is a dangerous administration’s attempt to rule by tyranny and intimidation and little else. It is also not the first time the Trump administration has suggested keeping a federal database of “undesirables.”
First they proposed forcing American Muslims to “register” in a national database, and then attempted to garner the highly-personal voting and citizenship information from Americans with a bogus “commission” to ferret out the non-existent massive voter fraud. Now they have tasked a federal law enforcement agency with compiling a database consisting of journalists, media organizations, bloggers, podcasters and “influencers” on social media based on their “sentiment?”
It is hardly arguable that the government does not already monitor everything Americans are reading, saying, and writing, and by its very nature everything related to the “media” is not secret. However, the concept of a federal agency monitoring the “sentiments” of Americans and creating a federal database based on those “sentiments” is chilling. It is also another indication that America under Trump, since his poorly-attended inauguration, is experiencing the exact same process that eventually gave the world North Korea, Russia and Nazi Germany.