The Sunday Magazine

Barack Obama was a greater enemy of the free press than Trump — Michael's essay

Trump may have made rumblings and grumblings, threatening all kinds of confrontation. But he has never done anything but talk. Obama tapped reporters’ phones and dragged them into court.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama 'declared open war on the press in a take-no-prisoners kind of way,' writes The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright. (John Gress/Reuters)

The president of the United States celebrated a milestone last week, though I'm not entirely sure milestone is the mot juste.

The Washington Post announced that the president had perpetrated the 10,000th lie of his administration at a rally in Wisconsin.

The lying began on the afternoon of his inauguration, when he declared that the ceremony attracted the largest crowd in American history.

The lies grew and grew and spread like hordes of zebra mussels covering everything in their path.

If he keeps up this pace, odds makers say, he will have told 22,500 lies by election day next year.

When the president is called on yet another lie, he lashes back at the press through his Twitter addiction.

Covering the activities of U.S. President Donald Trump must be 'frustrating' for reporters, writes Enright, but when it comes to dealing with the press, 'his bark has been far worse than his bite,' he argues. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

He has complained about fake news and has called out reporters by name, saying they are dishonest, awful people.

Nevertheless, is he the menace, the threat to the very freedom of the press that we've come to know and disrespect? 

Not by a country mile. His predecessor is.

The Obama administration ... declared open war on the press in a take-no-prisoners kind of way.- Michael Enright

In fact, Barack Obama may be one of the greatest enemies of a free press in American history. Much more than his successor. 

Donald J. Trump may have made rumblings and grumblings, threatening all kinds of confrontation. But he has never done anything but talk.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, declared open war on the press in a take-no-prisoners kind of way.

Obama's justice department tapped reporters' phones, dragged reporters into court, and prosecuted three times as many cases targeting leakers than all previous administrations combined.

New York Times reporter James Risen, centre, participates in a news conference on Aug. 14, 2014, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Risen spoke about the U.S. Justice Department's pursuit of his confidential sources. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Comparisons, odious in tone, have been made to the criminal enterprise known as Nixon administration.

Len Downie of The Post wrote: "The administration's war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration."

Take the case of James Risen, a good reporter for the New York Times. The Obama justice department spent seven years — seven — in court, trying to get Risen to reveal his sources.

In another case, the Obama White House went after a Fox News reporter who was trying to get information about North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

In public court documents, Obama's attorneys actually called the reporter a conspirator against the United States.

The administration dug up and scoured records of nearly 100 Associated Press reporters and editors.

Throughout the eight years of the administration, the Obama White House singled out Fox News for special attention.

Said one Obama communications aide: "We're going to treat them the way we treat an opponent."

The White House is seen behind security barriers in Washington on March 24. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

It is entirely possible — likely even — that Barack Obama led the least transparent, most secretive administration in history, despite his campaign rhetoric.

His White House has the worst record in history of fulfilling freedom of information requests.

In his column in The Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik wrote: "In fairness to Trump, his administration has not escalated the conflict with the press to a new level. It has not yet come close to doing what President Obama's administration did in making the act of reporting itself criminal behaviour."

In the case of freedom of the press, [Trump's] bark has been far worse than his bite.- Michael Enright

Covering the activities of this American president must be frustrating and, for those who have to do it every day, a debilitating experience.

There has never been a president like this before. His unpredictability, his lack of focus on issues, his personal attacks on political opponents and his frenetic use of Twitter have made it hard even for seasoned correspondents to make sense of the president and the aims of his administration.

He may be guilty of many things, politically and privately.

But in the case of freedom of the press, his bark has been far worse than his bite.

For real threats to press freedom, you have to look back to Barack Obama and his administration.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.