On Sunday, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus made a shocking threat: President Trump’s administration is exploring changes to libel laws that protect free speech. Priebus warned that the press should “be more responsible with how they report the news.” His statement on the ABC program ‘The Week’ came on the heels of Trump’s speech in Pennsylvania Saturday night in which he condemned the media, calling reporters “very dishonest people.”
Trump held the rally instead of attending the White House Correspondents Association dinner, whose theme was free speech. Traditionally, presidents submit to being lampooned at the annual event, which Trump attended before becoming commander-in-chief. The last time a commander-in-chief missed the dinner was in 1981, when President Reagan called in instead of attending in person because he was recovering from an assassination attempt.
But Trump has proven to have remarkable difficulty tolerating negative media commentary. He has referred to the media as the “opposition party” and tweeted that “any negative polls are fake news” – a term he seems to use for any media reports he doesn’t like, regardless of whether they’re true. And his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway famously coined the term “alternative facts” in an effort to back up the president and Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false claims that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was larger than it was.
However, accepting criticism is a lesson that Trump should learn from dictators like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
University of Canterbury political scientist Anne-Marie Brady has argued that the Chinese government ― which can censor any domestic media coverage it wishes ― actually allows (limited) reporting that is critical of the government since it serves as a useful pressure valve, allowing people to air their grievances without overthrowing the Communist party.
President Putin could tell Trump the same thing. The Russians use a different official institution, the legislature, to give an outlet to the opposition. In September, Putin’s party, United Russia, won a supermajority in the Duma. But 13 of the 26 committee chairmanships in the legislature were given to opposition parties. Why? According to University of Wisconsin political scientist Ora John Reuter and University of North Carolina political scientist Graeme B. Robertson, giving opposition politicians a role in the legislature keeps them from mobilizing in the streets.
Similarly, the free press in the U.S. benefits Trump ― a remarkably unpopular president ― because Americans have peaceful ways to express their displeasure without storming the White House. Trump’s approval ratings at the end of his first 100 days are the lowest of any president in history.
Of course, the notion of dissent is a uniquely American concept. As Ralph Young, author of ‘Dissent: The History of an American Idea’ has written, the U.S. was settled by religious dissidents, achieved independence because of dissent against the British, and has been shaped by dissent ever since.
That’s why free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. As James Madison wrote, the “right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon… has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
Therefore, for Trump and for any leader, criticism is normal and even helpful. But if Trump continues to try to respond to every perceived slight, he will only exacerbate their damage to his reputation.
This is because of what public relations practitioners call the “Streisand effect”: complaining about information that is reported often backfires, because it makes the issue even more high profile than it otherwise would have been. The phenomenon is named after Barbra Streisand, who sued to have photos of her mansion removed from an online database. The result was that many more people saw the photos because of her complaint.
In Trump’s case, we wouldn’t still be thinking about a lot of the media coverage he didn’t like if he didn’t keep talking and tweeting about it, ensuring that it dominates more news cycles.
Even if Trump isn’t informed or thick-skinned enough to accept debate as a normal part of the American political process, he should be able to see that even dictators tolerate dissent. Negative media coverage often serves the interests of the very leaders who are criticized, by providing innocuous ways for outraged citizens to voice their concerns. Past leaders like France’s King Louis XVI would be jealous.