February 16, 2017/ By Marisa Kellam and Elizabeth A. Stein
President Donald Trump continues to wage his self-proclaimed “running war with the media.” During yesterday’s press conference, he evaded inquiries about his campaign’s contact with Russian officials by ignoring mainstream media reporters, only taking questions from those working for conservative news outlets. This is becoming a pattern in the president’s press conferences. Before his inauguration, Trump shouted down Jim Acosta of CNN, referring to the network as “fake news,” a label he has also applied to the New York Times. The president frequently rails against the “dishonest” press, and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, told the media to “keep its mouth shut.”
Before the election, some political scientists cautioned in an open letter that Trump, as president, would endanger press freedom. Scholars who view his presidency as unprecedented in the United States have compared him with illiberal but democratically elected leaders elsewhere. Should President Trump follow the playbook of his populist contemporaries in Latin America and Europe, it could lead to a slow but steady dismantling of democracy.
Our research on government-media relations in Latin American countries indicates that the White House’s anti-press rhetoric should cause concern.
One source of that concern comes from Trump’s president-versus-the-press mentality, which resembles the adversarial attitude of many Latin American presidents. This mentality has had serious consequences. According to Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, freedom of the press in Latin America declined dramatically over the past two decades. Granted, journalists in Latin America face various threats from organized crime (including attacks on reporters who investigate drug cartels), corrupt local politicians and complicit courts. But sometimes, the president is to blame. In a comparative study of 18 countries, we analyzed why and how democratically elected presidents contribute to the deterioration of media freedom.