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Trump's war on CNN and the media just got really, really scary

The ever-escalating war between Trump and the media just crossed a dangerous line as administration threatened to apply the regulatory screws to CNN's parent to punish its aggressive journalist. That's the most serious and alarming threat to a free press in America since the days of Richard Nixon.

A man holding a sign that says, "CNN is Fake News" and "" positioned himself into photos while the media covered an Impeachment March in downtown Los Angeles on July 2, 2017.
A man holding a sign that says, "CNN is Fake News" and "" positioned himself into photos while the media covered an Impeachment March in downtown Los Angeles on July 2, 2017.Read moreJay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS

It's easy — tempting, even — to dismiss President Trump's increasingly over-caffeinated feud with CNN as nothing more than a distraction of the highest order, a kind of fake news in the guise of a national debate over "FAKE NEWS!!" The increasingly bizarre tweets coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or whatever Trump-branded resort the president is promoting on the taxpayer's dime) often come at a time when the actual real-world non-fake news is most devastating for the 45th president, like word that his party's health care plan will take 23 million Americans off their health insurance, or the latest twist of the investigative knife in the Russia election-meddling probe.

But the truth is that Trump's escalating war on the media is a distraction in the same way that a traffic jam caused by a tanker-truck fire on a downtown overpass on your way to work is little more than a distraction — until an explosion rips through the expressway and the core infrastructure of  your community. In this analogy, the infrastructure at risk of melting in a hot orange inferno is nothing less than the 1st Amendment — and thus the increasingly bleak future of constitutional government and basic rights in this country.

Trump's unholy jihad is nothing new to anyone who's watched his maddeningly inexorable rise toward the Oval Office since 2015 — exhorting rabid rally crowds with jeremiads against working journalists as "scum" and "totally dishonest people," and later, after he'd assumed the full power of the presidency, as the "enemy of the American people." He's worked to belittle press freedom in America in ways both large and small — banning cameras or even audio from press briefings and gaggles, going months without a formal press conference, and now with his steady stream of Twitter attacks against what he calls "fake news.'

Sunday's Trump tweet was a new rock bottom, but it was a low point on a long gradual slope that's been rolling America downward for months, not a sudden Wile E. Coyote-like plunge off a steep precipice. The idea that the heir to the house of Lincoln and FDR would endorse a re-engineered video from Trump's Wrestlemania era that shows him violently body-slamming a human figure with a CNN logo for a head, or that it would be sourced from an Internet racist and anti-Semite, felt sadly predictable, frankly. Just another step down a ladder of decline in American discourse that's been propped up against our barn for the last few years.

The president's low blow also generated a somewhat predictable dance of reaction, that the nation's leader was endorsing and even encouraging actual threats, harassment and physical violence against journalists. Which — intentional or not — is exactly what has happened. That's what CNN journalist Andrew Kaczynski, who leads an investigative reporting team for the network, has learned since he reported on the right-wing meme-maker behind the Trump wrestling video. Since then, Kaczynski's wife, parents and family members have reported receiving dozens of threats. Said CNN's leader Jeffrey Zucker: "The rhetoric and threats that our folks are subjected to on a daily basis is much more serious than I think anybody would realize and I and we are are incredibly concerned." All Americans — not just journalists or CNN employees — should be not only concerned but appalled.

And yet the Trump-CNN story just managed to get worse — a lot worse. What's really scary about the feud between the White House and one of America's leading news organization is the idea that Trump and his administration could start pulling the awesome levers of power within the federal government — the ability to regulate, tax, audit and investigate — to bully CNN or other news organizations into favorable coverage of the president. Remarkably, in the midst of the escalating chaos, Team Trump is now making barely veiled threats to do exactly that.

Last night, the New York Times reported this as part of a broader story about Trump's anti-CNN offensive: "White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN's parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump's Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president's animus toward CNN remains a wild card."

There's only one word to describe such a ploy: Nixonian. And even Richard Nixon and his aides weren't so brazenly public when they went after Katherine Graham and her Washington Post, the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for its aggressive reporting on Nixon's Watergate scandal. Graham later wrote,"Of all the threats to the company during Watergate — the attempts to undermine our credibility, the petty slights, and the favoring of the competition — the most effective were the challenges to the licenses of our two Florida television stations." Karl Marx famously wrote once that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce" — but Trump's authoritarian-style assault on press freedom in the United States has mixed the worst elements of both.

The elephant in the room, I guess, is CNN. As "the victim" in a president's war on press freedom, are they the "perfect victim," a paragon of journalistic virtue? With all the vitriol fired at CNN from the right, it's easy too forget how deeply disappointing CNN has often been to those on the left, who still feel that Trump was handed billions in free advertising by the network's ratings-driven, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies in 2015 and 2016 and who wonder why the network has paid Trump apologists like Jeffrey Lord and (for a time) Corey Lewandowski. Meanwhile, Trump allies say it was over-the-top and borderline blackmail when CNN threatened to name the wrestling-meme creator if he went after the network again — and here the critics have a point — and also have made much of the fact that three CNN journalists were ousted after posting a flawed investigative piece.

There, it gets complicated. I believe that errors — which in this case were quickly corrected — are an unfortunate byproduct of the kind of tough investigative reporting we need more of, not less of, and I also believe it was ridiculous for CNN to get rid of three top-notch journalists over just one mistake. (It's worth noting, in the Nixon-Watergate analogy, that the Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made a similar kind of error on one story, and yet are still recalled as national heroes for the body of their work.)  The broader point is that, no, CNN is not "the perfect victim," but then it's also easy to get tripped up looking for 100-percent-innocent victims in any arena — social, racial or gender injustice, for example. Basic civil rights aren't based on good-behavior trophies; they are absolute. I'm a journalist who has written critically, even harshly, about the network over the years, but when the Trump administration goes after their 1st Amendment rights, I am CNN. And if you care about the rights of citizens to be informed in a free democratic society, then you are CNN as well. And we are all endangered.

And yet there seems to be no stopping Trump. Just this morning, the president went to Warsaw, Poland, where — standing on what for much of the 20th Century was the front line in the battle for liberty — he was unable to constrain himself. On a podium next to Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump fielded a question from a friendly pro-administration reporter and said: "I think what CNN did was unfortunate for them. As you know now, they have some pretty serious problems. They have been fake news for a long time. They've been covering me in a very dishonest way. NBC is equally as bad, despite the fact that I made them a fortune with 'The Apprentice,' but they forgot that."

The irony was both staggering…and heartbreaking. If any nation on the planet knows about "fake news," it's Poland. In 1980, when union workers led by Lech Walesa began to rise up for basic human rights and their decency in the face of their nation's Soviet-dominated Communist government, the regime tried to kill the incipient movement by actively censoring any news about "sporadic labor disturbances in Gdańsk." But some courageous people practicing journalism that the government didn't like — the most important kind of journalism ever created — through underground newspapers and pamphlets helped spread the word anyway. The Iron Curtain fell, and Walesa even became Poland's leader.

It was a feel-good story…until it one day it wasn't. In recent months, Poland's conservative, Trump-friendly government under Duda has taken several disturbing steps to curtail that nation's press freedom, including ousting journalists from the once-independent public television and radio. It's a reminder that the arc of the moral universe bends toward a free media — until the day when it can bend in the other direction. Yes, even in the United States of America. An unconstrained media is enshrined in the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights, but that's a meaningless scrap of paper if we don't fight to preserve it. And here's a body slam of reality: Press freedom in America is in a wrestling match for its life.