“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…”
Johnny Cash, in “Folsom Prison Blues”
“I did it (sued a journalist) to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”
Donald Trump, in a 2016 interview
Folk-rock singer Johnny Cash’s 1955 song, “Folsom Prison Blues”, is the stuff of fable and legend. The image of shooting a man in Reno is clearly not meant to be taken literally.
Not so with Donald Trump’s confession about why he sued a writer who wrote a book making the case that Trump wasn’t nearly as wealthy as he has made himself out to be. Trump knew how difficult it was for a celebrity like himself to win a libel case against a journalist, under our Constitution’s First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings that have backed it up. So he decided instead to punish the writer, Timothy O’Brien, in the next-best way—by forcing him and his publisher to spend large amounts on legal fees. Trump even appealed the case, after it was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge, only to have it rejected again on appeal. This was one of seven libel assaults Trump has filed against the media (he’s lost all but one, when the defendant didn’t appear), together with other billionaires, to weaken the media.
In a few days, Trump will have power to increase the odds he and other corporate bigwigs can win libel suits against members of the media. Here is how he stated his intentions early last year:
“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So that when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
He added this promise to the media: “We’re going to open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re going to have people sue you like you never got sued before.”
Trump repeated this threat any number of times, while adding language designed to de-humanize reporters and writers in the eyes of the public. He has referred to them as “lying,” “disgusting,” “dishonest,” and “scum.” (For the record, President Obama has been tough on journalists in another realm, going after whistle-blowers and others who have revealed government secrets, with unprecedented aggressiveness.)
History teaches us to take seriously the rantings of authoritarian rulers—they predictably go after those they scapegoat. And Trump has a Republican Congress that can pass the laws he wants. Moreover, he’ll be able to shift the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court to possibly rule his way on laws attacking free speech.
All this by way of explaining the fears I’ve experienced as I consider a sequel to my investigative book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, in which I describe a federal and state government campaign, carried out with the encouragement of industry, to cripple small farms producing nutrient-dense food.
Because my story included a number of individuals and companies that I knew might take offense at my story, I was concerned about possibly being sued by someone with Trump’s attitude toward journalists. So I was especially careful in my reporting to be able to back up via credible sources all my assertions. I also purchased special insurance protection in the event I was sued for libel. Such insurance is extremely expensive, even assuming you can get it, which isn’t easy; I was fortunate to be able to buy it through a journalist trade organization I belong to.
I’m not providing this background to stir up sympathy. I’m explaining it to give shape and form to the concerns expressed by any number of media commentators about how Trump could limit key freedoms. I know lots of people here have pooh-poohed those concerns as the crocodile tears of upset liberals.
This business about insurance and liability and such are matters reporters generally keep private, much like doctors and other professionals prefer not to discuss malpractice risk with patients. It’s part of the scenery, part of the risk you assume with the profession, but you try to avoid thinking about it too much.
A few readers have encouraged me to take on new investigative projects, most recently Scott Freeman, in a comment following my previous post (about the expanding impact of technology on food). Journalists are, at heart, crusaders, and I’m no exception, so it’s tempting to simply kiss off threats like Trump has made, and move on to new exposes.
Yet any such project is, in essence, a business venture, and as such, I need to take into account the shifting legal, political, and business landscape. The man I quoted at the start of this post, who bragged about making a journalist’s life miserable by suing him, will now have the full resources of the U.S. Justice Department at his disposal, and could have new laws making it easier for big-money types to go after journalists for libel. Moreover, he’s giving encouragement to the Monsantos and Dean Foods of the world to join in on the fun.
When you come down to it, Trump’s vision of new laws and regulations to trip up journalists would be a very American way to limit free speech. You don’t send soldiers out to shutter news offices, you simply enact costly laws and regulations that inhibit the media. Not unlike what’s been done to small farmers over the last half century or so, with disastrous results.
I’m still not sure what direction to go in. I’ve been trying my hand at fiction as one option, since it’s a tougher genre for business and governments to regulate (though especially repressive regimes go after novelists as well, to the extent they parody or satire the regime).
I know a lot of people here have drooled over sticking it to America’s mainstream media. All I can say is, be careful what you wish for.