Questioning the General: parallels to Soviet media control?
Earlier this month, Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida reported that President Trump made insensitive, off piste comments over the phone to the widow of a soldier recently killed in Niger. According to Wilson, Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Trump flatly denied such comments. President Trump’s Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, rushed to Trump’s defense. Kelly called Congresswoman Wilson an “empty barrel,” and noted he was “stunned” over alleged comments she made “grandstanding about her own actions in Congress” at a building dedication ceremony honouring slain FBI agents.
However, a video of Wilson’s speech at the ceremony has surfaced, and plainly contradicts Kelly. Over the weekend, media outlets have been publishing headlines such as “Kelly erroneously claimed congresswoman took credit for building funding, video shows” (CNN), “Video Backs Wilson, Not Kelly” (FactCheck.org) and “Video of Wilson’s speech shows Kelly was wrong” (Miami Herald).
Regardless of what Wilson, Kelly, or even Trump actually said, I’m alarmed that the White House has insinuated that the veracity of Kelly’s statements should not be questioned, as reported in the Guardian:
Chip Reid, a CBS News correspondent, said during the daily press briefing: “[Kelly] was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured before she came into Congress.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, replied coldly: “If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine General, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
Having just seen Armando Iannucci’s irreverent, brilliant film The Death of Stalin over the weekend, I consider that the issue of political control over news media is just as relevant today.
In the United States, official government censorship is virtually nonexistent and the American Constitution supports one of the strongest systems of legal protection for media independence (Freedom House). However, Trump does not shy away from flirting with the idea of restraining what the press may or may not publish.
In a since-deleted tweet earlier this year, Trump stated that “the FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” (7 February 2017). More recently, amidst controversies concerning Puerto Rico, Rex Tillerson and NFL Protests (et al), Trump has stated “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” and “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” (October 11 & 12 2017).
While a challenge of network licences likely won’t happen from a practical perspective (not least because the Federal Communication Commission doesn’t actually licence networks: they licence individual stations) these comments should be taken as an indication of Trump’s vitriolic view on the media writ large, however ill-informed. Perhaps most worryingly, Trump stated in a press conference (October 11) that “it’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it” (LA Times).
While most reviews of this film focus on the use of humour in dark times, I was left feeling that a central themes in The Death of Stalin is history as theatre. The idea of manipulating truth is woven throughout the film, beginning with the recording (or “recording”) of a Mozart concerto. Stalin was a master of media control and manipulation, evidenced by the censorship and alterations of photos during the Purges. There was even a dedicated censorship organisation known as the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press. Through the distortion of history and consolidation of power under his unquestionable authority, Stalin successfully turned himself into a mythical creature beyond reproach.
In an interview with British paper The Independent, director Armando Iannucci noted that “anyone Stalin disagreed with was called an enemy of the people.” Drawing parallels with America today, he further added that “Trump calls [people he disagrees with] ‘fake news’ and ‘unpatriotic’. It’s that same tendency of someone who wants to run the country by himself, not wanting anyone to oppose him. I find it disturbing.”
In attacking Wilson as an opportunist with a political motive, Kelly attempted to place Trump on a higher moral plane than that of the congresswoman. However, when his comments were refuted by video evidence, both a mistaken Kelly and Trump were juxtaposed with Wilson’s seemingly more truthful figure. Rather than admit the mistake or ignore it – perhaps categorising the Johnson telephone call as simply a faux pas by a novice politician – Kelly, Trump, and the White House Press Secretary are attempting to introduce new rules (even if only de facto) regarding who can, and cannot, be questioned.
Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.
Castells v Spain (1992) European Court of Human Rights