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EDITORIAL: A new front in war on media

York Dispatch Editorial Board

President Donald Trump doesn’t like to hear bad news.

He deflects it, he ignores it, he lies about it and he verbally assaults anyone who attempts to offer it up.

This has led to the dismissal of staffers, the berating of reporters and, now, legal action against media outlets — for opinion pieces.

In recent weeks, the Trump campaign, has filed defamation and libel suits against a trio of traditional targets: The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. In all cases, the campaign claims the news outlets wronged the president in opinion pieces that focused on the campaign’s alleged ties to Russian electoral interference in 2016 and the president’s insistence in a 2019 ABC-TV interview that he would accept political assistance from a foreign government.

This is the latest in a series of administration attacks against the media: the non-stop Twitter tirades and verbal vilifications; the arbitrary removal of press credentials to reporters who ask difficult questions; the press secretary who, nine months into her tenure, has yet to hold a single White House press briefing; the stonewalling and stone-throwing.

But this new front against an industry Trump frequently denounces as the enemy has been opened on weak legal ground.

To establish defamation, the campaign would have to prove the news outlets showed “actual malice;” that they knew the opinion pieces were false or showed reckless disregard for the truth.

Fat chance! The CNN essay by Larry Noble, for instance, argued that special counsel Robert Mueller should have charged Trump for soliciting help from Russia in his 2016 campaign. Trump, of course, is on record asking Russia to find information on his presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.

No, winning the cases is not the goal of these legal maneuvers. Even the increasingly frequent tactic of hustling a case straight to friendly Supreme Court wouldn’t ensure victory.

The motive, as usual, is political.

The actions are intended to shore up the perception among the president’s base that he is the besieged party, the Washington outsider, fighting back against a biased and powerful foe. They also hit the news organizations in the wallet — something to which the president is always keenly attuned.

It is no coincidence that the campaign, and the not the president, is bringing the suit — and footing the bill. Trump isn’t about to use his own money; he never does. It his donors who will pay the no-doubt tidy legal fees of lawyer Charles Harder, who, as NPR reports, specializes in bringing cases against media outlets on behalf of clients “who were subject to critical coverage.”

Still, the cases have the potential to backfire. Could the campaign, for example, ignore the courts the way the administration ignored Congress should the litigants seek pertinent information through the discovery process it just opened itself up to? The results would be fascinating; the irony, rich.

And much like deep-sixing the filibuster to rush Supreme Court justices to the bench, there seems to have been little thought given as to what happens when the shoe is eventually on the other foot. Normalizing legal attacks on media coverage can go both ways.

Trump and the likewise litigious Republican congressman Devin Nunes are targeting mainstream news outlets but there’s nothing to prevent a monied interest from targeting conservative media, in which there is no lack of questionably defensible content. More fascinating results; more rich irony.

The late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assertion that we have the right to our own opinions but not our own facts has been sorely tested in recent years. Now, in bringing these suits, the Trump campaign argues that we have the right to neither.