Anyone who wonders what would be the logical conclusion to President Donald Trump’s constant attacks on the free press were he unrestrained need only look to Russia. There, a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin gives him sweeping authority to limit Russian media and quash criticism.
They claim it’s to address what Putin himself now calls “fake news” — which is Trump-speak for negative news. What a testament to Trump’s autocratic instincts: No longer is he merely taking his lead from foreign dictators; now they’re taking their leads from him.
Fake news is a genuine problem on social media. But Trump has promoted a dangerous new definition for it: He cites the phrase any time journalists report something he doesn’t like. Period.
He cried “fake news” to revelations about his porn star payoff. And his role in covering up the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian operative. And his communication of classified information to a Russian diplomat in the White House.
That it was all borne out doesn’t matter to Trump and his base. There’s a tacit understanding that the “fake news” mantra has nothing to do with whether the information is true or false; it’s all about whether it’s good or bad for Trump.
Trump’s cynical strategy is now official Kremlin policy. The law Putin signed would use fines and jail time to punish distribution of information that shows “blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”
Consider the problem with that wording: Information can be accurate and still express “disrespect” for the government; accusing the government of misdeeds is by definition disrespectful, even if true. Yet “disrespect” in itself, according to the Kremlin, is what Putin is calling “fake news.” He has, it seems, adopted the Trumpian definition of the phrase.
Russia has never been a beacon of press freedom, but the new law is onerous even by Russian standards. For the crime of spreading “fake news” — which, again, the Russian government, like Trump, conflates with unpleasant news — one can be fined the equivalent of more than $20,000. Insulting an official (even, presumably, one who richly deserves it) can mean jail time.
How envious Trump must be. Each time he tweets out “Fake news!” or complains about soft libel laws or whines about “Saturday Night Live” making fun of him, this is exactly the kind of solution he seems to yearn for.
Sure, the U.S. Constitution would appear to prohibit it here. But the Constitution would also appear to prohibit profiting from the presidency, obstructing justice and spending money Congress refuses to appropriate — yet Trump’s Republican enablers have let him do it all. Any Americans who aren’t used to saying nice things about Trump might want to start practicing.