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Feeling Burned By The Media, Trump Turns Up The Heat

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seen on a camera monitor during a campaign event this summer.
Joshua Lott
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seen on a camera monitor during a campaign event this summer.

The whirling dervish that is Donald J. Trump spun ever faster on Thursday, shredding almost everything in his range of vision — Hillary Clinton, his fellow Republicans who fail to support him unequivocally, the growing chorus of women accusing him of sexual misconduct, and especially the press.

In just the past 24 hours, Trump threatened to sue The New York Times for recounting the stories of two accusers; he slammed the media for serving, in his telling, as a wing of Clinton's campaign; and he called a reporter from The Associated Press "a sleazebag" for daring to ask him about those accusations.

Trump also denounced a reporter for People magazine who said he forced himself upon her at his Florida estate, as she waited to do an interview of Trump and his wife, Melania. At a rally Thursday, Trump suggested the woman was not attractive enough to merit his attention: "Look at her," he said, before noting, "Look at her words. I don't think so."

Trump noted at the rally Thursday, "The only thing Hillary Clinton has going for herself is the press. Without the press, she is absolutely zero."

He continued on a similar vein: "The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism. They're a political, special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda. And the agenda is not for you, it's for themselves."

Advocates for journalists have taken note.

On Thursday afternoon, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared that a Trump presidency poses a fundamental threat to press freedoms. In a statement, CPJ Chairman Sandra Mims Rowe wrote, "The consequences for the rights of journalists around the world would be far more serious ... embolden[ing] dictators and despots to restrict the media in their own country."

That assessment is unlikely to sway Trump devotees in conservative-leaning states or even suburban voters in such swing states as North Carolina, Nevada or Ohio. Yet the not-for-profit journalism group's stance is stark and unprecedented. The committee said it was not making a partisan choice but concluded that Trump "represents a threat to press freedom unknown in modern [U.S.] history."

As a candidate, Trump has made attacking the media a calling card for months. Reporters from news outlets offering critical coverage often found themselves blacklisted from his public events. Yet Trump's anger has crested, as the scrutiny of his past has intensified, with coverage of his charity, his federal taxes and now these accusations of sexual assault and other misbehavior.

This attack is a pretty rich irony for a candidate propelled in public view by a long trail of tabloid pieces covering his colorful (read: erratic) personal life; his television stardom as a reality show host and beauty pageant executive; and his enshrinement as a pundit worth paying attention to by any network news organization that could get him to sit down or even call in by phone for an interview for an easy ratings boost. His uneven record as a real-estate mogul seemed beside the point.

Indeed for more than a year, Trump's candidacy appeared to exist almost wholly at boisterous rallies televised almost in their entirety and in the television studios where he would bulldoze most of his questioners.

Now the leaked video from an NBC celebrity news show, Access Hollywood, not only set off a torrent of criticism toward Trump for bragging that his celebrity allowed him to make unwanted sexual advances on women, including grabbing them by the genitals; it has also triggered deep rifts at that network. NBC is now negotiating the departure of the second voice on that tape, Billy Bush, who joined its key franchise, the Today show, a few months ago. Some journalists at the network were enraged the story was broken first by The Washington Post.

And Mark Burnett, the creator of NBC's reality show The Apprentice that starred Trump for years, felt compelled to distance himself from Trump, saying he does not condone or support him. Both Burnett and MGM Studios, which now holds the title to The Apprentice, say they cannot release outtakes of Trump from the show but will not say why. The Associated Press earlier reported that Trump had frequently made coarse sexual comments about women who competed or worked on the show based on numerous interviews.

Meanwhile, Trump's attorneys are threatening to bulldoze one of the nation's most vital news organizations. In a letter to the Times, the attorney Marc E. Kasowitz demanded a retraction of its article based on interviews with two women who accused Trump of sexual improprieties. One said Trump groped her and put his hands up her dress while sitting next to her on an airline flight; another said he gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips, as she waited for an elevator inside Trump Tower.

"Your article is reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel per se," Kasowitz wrote to the Times' executive editor, Dean Baquet. "It is apparent from, among other things, the timing of the article, that it is nothing more than a politically motivated effort to defeat Mr. Trump's candidacy."

The Times' assistant general counsel, David McCraw, sent back an epic letter to say that given Trump's past public statements, including his acquiescence to radio host Howard Stern's "request to discuss Mr. Trump's own daughter as a 'piece of ass'," that the candidate's reputation on such matters could not be further affected. Additionally, McCraw wrote that "it would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence [the accusers'] voices."

It's not the first time in this campaign that Trump has threatened to sue the Times. He made another threat to do so earlier this month, when the Times revealed the way in which he could have avoided paying federal taxes for years (by reporting more than $900 million in losses) — a possibility he appeared to confirm during last Sunday's town hall debate with Clinton. Trump tweeted, "My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching."

No such suit has yet been filed.

In neither case do First Amendment lawyers see sturdy grounds for a successful suit.

That's not necessarily his purpose. Trump did sue then-New York Times reporter Timothy O'Brien for $5 billion for questioning whether the entrepreneur was worth as much as he said he was. Trump, who later acknowledged he wanted to inflict financial pain on O'Brien, ended up settling with him instead. On Thursday, O'Brien wrote that journalists should welcome Trump's lawsuits. In his case, the depositions led to greater insights into how Trump actually operates.

Over the summer, Trump installed Steve Bannon, the former chief of Breitbart News, as his campaign CEO, and disgraced former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is now openly serving as an adviser to Trump. (It is worth remembering that Ailes' disgrace stems from the wave of allegations over the summer that he had sexually harassed many women at Fox News, charges that he, too, denies.)

While some journalists may indeed be sympathetic to Clinton, or at least share CPJ's concerns about Trump's attitudes toward the press, the most stark collusion by media on the campaign trail appears to involve Trump. Just before last Sunday's town-hall debate, Breitbart published an interview with Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused former President Bill Clinton of raping her. Trump then led a discussion with Broaddrick and other women who have accused Bill Clinton of impropriety.

Now, instead of popping up everywhere, Trump has retreated into the beckoning arms of Fox News, as Fox's own Megyn Kelly has acknowledged, particularly the prime-time shows of the sympathetic Sean Hannity.

Hannity, who previously appeared in an online commercial for Trump, has all but erased any distinctions between his program and the aims of the Trump campaign. On Thursday evening he has scheduled two full segments with Bill Clinton's accusers in an effort to change the subject.

It is a scorched-earth approach designed to appeal only to the faithful. And in the process, Trump — and Hannity, for that matter — are setting themselves on fire, live, on television. It's quite a show.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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