Guest Column: Media not apprentices

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At a recent press conference addressing money that he promised to raise for veterans, Donald Trump lambasted assembled reporters for questioning how much he had raised and to whom it had gone. In an especially notable moment, he singled out a reporter from ABC news as "sleaze."

Days earlier he had blasted a "Mexican" judge (although he has a Spanish name, he had been born in Indiana) for presiding over proceedings involving whether Trump University (which, as it turns out, is not a true university) engaged in fraudulent marketing practices.

Although he has since buried that hatchet, Trump skipped a debate earlier in the year because of a quarrel with Megyn Kelly of Fox News. For Trump, the personal is the political.

As those who support Trump over Clinton (who has her own thin skin) sometimes point out, few if any modern politicians have been as accessible to the news media as Trump. Some estimate that the media has extended Trump as much as $2 billion in free media. His face has been ubiquitous on television news, and he is well known for his late-night twitters and tweets.

When Trump calls, he can choose to whom he talks. It is more difficult to walk out of a press conference, but easier to direct attention away from nettlesome questions by quarreling with members of the press. Trump is hardly the first to charge the press with being unduly liberal or biased, but he appears to have ratcheted media criticism to a new level. For all his media savvy, Trump appears to lack the self-deprecating sense of humor of a John F. Kennedy (the closest Trump has come was an appearance on Saturday Night Live) or the artfulness in using verbal circumlocutions of Dwight D. Eisenhower. There does not appear to be much of a filter from what pops into his mind at the moment and what he says.

After eviscerating his Republican opponents, Trump now has the media in his cross hairs. The politics of insult hardly portends well for a potential Trump presidency, especially if it signals how he would also treat rival branches of government (or foreign governments). Is Congress altering or delaying a presidential proposal? Don't just follow Harry Truman and call it a "do-nothing" body. Try questioning its integrity. Has the Court issued an adverse ruling? Call its members out for being Hispanic, female, Jewish, or Catholic. State governors not jumping on the bandwagon? Blame them, as Trump blamed a Republican New Mexican Governor Susana Martinez, for federal immigration policies.

America's founders expected the three branches to check one another, and as former critics of the English King whose words were considered treasonous, they certainly were not expecting a fawning press. They adopted the First Amendment precisely because they knew that rulers often sought to retaliate against those who questioned them. Political scientists often identify the press as the fourth branch of government precisely because they expect its members to challenge those to whom the people have entrusted with power. Thomas Jefferson said that if he could have could have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would prefer the latter.

In 1798, Federalists sought to cling to power by adopting a sedition act that made it a crime to criticize the president or the government of the United States. Two years later, the American people repudiated this policy by electing a president who supported freedom of speech and press and pardoned alleged offenders. Like the election of 1800, the 2016 election will likely determine how the president treats the press over the next four years.

The American system doesn't need a press, or rival branches of government, composed of sycophants or toadies. As a billionaire and a television personality known for firing those who do not please him, Trump may be used to having butlers, housekeepers, hairdressers, pilots, and chauffeurs to carry out his bidding, but he should not count members of the press among them. If elected president, he will not sit on a throne or be ensconced in a tower, but will reside in the "the people's house." Neither members of the press nor of the rival branches will be his apprentices.

John R. Vile is a Professor of Political Science and Dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment.

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