Commentary: Freedom of the press is indeed under attack, but not because of Trump

Commentary: Freedom of the press is indeed under attack, but not because of Trump
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks to the media Wednesday during his daily briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

These days, you can barely walk down the street without being accosted by a member of the legacy media who wants to tell you that the freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is under attack from President Donald Trump. Generally speaking, the basis for this claim is that Trump isn’t particularly nice to legacy outlets like the New York Times and CNN, that Trump didn’t allow Jim Acosta to ask a question at a news conference, that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took only reporters from IJR on a recent Asia trip, or the like.

This, of course, is tremendously silly. Trump’s behavior with the media might be uncouth (to the extent that anyone cares about such things), but it certainly does not even come close to an assault on the First Amendment. After all, nothing in the United States Constitution guarantees the press the right to be free from rude comments or guarantees any particular media outlet the right to ask questions at a media briefing. The media would do well to wait until Trump starts criminally prosecuting reporters for doing their jobs — like former President Barack Obama did with Fox News’ James Rosen — before hyperventilating about Trump’s assault on “freedom of the press.”

Meanwhile, a very real assault on the freedom of the press is occurring in California, and the national media somehow can’t seem to find the sense of righteous indignation that is always close at hand whenever they are dealing with President Trump. I am speaking, of course, about the outrageous criminal prosecution of David Daleiden and The Center for Medical Progress currently being undertaken by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, an elected official who has accepted thousands of dollars in political contributions from Planned Parenthood.

The basis of Becerra’s decision to file 15 felony charges against Daleiden — a citizen journalist who uncovered a more significant story than almost any legacy reporter in the country over the last decade — ought to outrage anyone who truly believes in freedom of the press. Daleiden is not accused of violating actual laws against wiretapping or illegal recording in the course of catching Planned Parenthood executives blithely discussing the sale of fetal tissue on camera; he is instead accused of criminally violating the “privacy” of these individuals — by engaging them in conversations in public restaurants, trade shows, and other highly public places.

If Daleiden had been a reporter for the New York Times and had recorded similarly damaging conversations in similar locations with ExxonMobil executives, does anyone seriously believe Becerra would have charged him with 15 felonies? Of course not. Naturally, the Times would never have sent a reporter to investigate anything that might paint Planned Parenthood in a negative light, which is why it was left to a citizen journalist like Daleiden to uncover this damaging information.

And it is exactly that fact that ought to trouble true advocates of freedom of the press. Freedom of the press shouldn’t be determined by the political leanings of the targets of damaging investigations. Exposing a scandal lurking within political sacred cows like Planned Parenthood is the core function of a truly free press. And make no mistake: this prosecution does not rest on the fact that the Planned Parenthood executives were recorded in public places, nor could it, because those activities were clearly legal. It is based solely on the fact that the damaging recordings were made public. In other words, Becerra is attempting to criminalize activities that go to the very heart of what a free press is supposed to do, for the transparently exclusive reason that the target of Daleiden’s reporting is politically well-connected.

It certainly is jarring and unusual to see Trump and his spokespeople treat the media with open disrespect, but doing so does not prevent them in any way from doing their job or chill the reporting of accurate, truthful information. On the other hand, the criminal prosecution of a citizen journalist on such spurious grounds is a legitimate outrage that ought to have every member of the media angrily shouting down Becerra for his political bullying, in the same way they do to White House press secretary Sean Spicer when he refuses to call on CNN.

The fact that they are largely disinterested in doing so speaks volumes about their commitment to true “freedom of the press,” as opposed to just “freedom from Trump’s rudeness.”

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