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Watching Trump

Over the last week, President Trump has expectedly dominated headlines. But beyond reports about his inauguration turnout, the subsequent lie told by his press secretary Sean Spicer and the media’s reaction to that lie, some stories have fallen to the wayside, and some went completely unreported.

The smaller stories of the week about the Trump administration is a recurring focus on digital communication, specifically the administration’s attempt to control and limit digital communication.

The agencies affected, in varying degrees, include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Health and Human Services and relatedly, the Center for Disease Control.

BuzzFeed reported that the USDA’s research arm (ARS) received a directive to not release any public facing documents, such as “news releases, photographs, fact sheets, news feed and social media content.” Reuters then reported that USDA officials had released a statement that the directive had not been cleared and had been issued mistakenly, at least at the ARS.

The Huffington Post reported that a source at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said that “the service has also been told to stop all posting to social media, updating the website or sending any public messages, including press releases and email, until further notice.”

The Trump administration has also banned EPA employees from a host of activities. The Huffington Post reported a memo to the employees that said, “no press releases, social media posts or blog messages until further notice. It also asked for a list of external speaking engagements for staff and any planned webinars. It warned that listservs would be reviewed and that staff should ‘only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.’”

Further, the Huffington Post reported, and ProPublica later confirmed, that EPA grants have been frozen. The restrictions on the EPA are especially concerning, as Vox wrote, considering the Trump administration’s stance on climate change is very different from the viewpoints of the previous administrations. A brief ProPublica summary about the Trump appointee for Administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruit, mentions that he is a “climate change skeptic.” There was also a minor tussle as the Trump administration tried to have the EPA take down its climate page from their website, although latest reports say that the administration has now backed down on this.

Others have noticed that the updated whitehouse.gov website is missing a few pages. The New York Magazine reported that mentions of climate change have been removed, and the pages on LGBT rights and civil rights are also missing.

The National Park Service also briefly lost its Twitter after tweeting a picture of President Trump’s inauguration compared to Obama’s and was told to cease social media operations. On Jan. 21, the account issued an apology and returned to the service.

The whitehouse.gov website could still be under construction. Maybe those pages will come back. These halts on communication could be a part of routine administration changes although scientists and advocacy groups have spoken out about how drastic they are. But whether this is temporary or not, these acts by the government deserve our attention and vigilance.

Priya Alika Elia, when discussing rape, wrote, It’s not about what men desire but what they can get away with.” I’ve quoted Elia before, and I do it again here because it remains true. It is important here because what is true about rape is also true of other crimes. When we commit wrongdoings, it is often not about what we desire but what we can get away with.

Trump has repeatedly gotten away with things that seem too outrageous to be true. And we have repeatedly watched him get away with them too, all the while scrambling to understand how we can deal with him.

Among the many privileges of the press is the fact that it often sets the agenda — for what is important and what deserves our attention — for the nation. It is a power that can be breached. There are numerous attempts to set the agenda by any number of interested groups, the government included. There are many ways to do this: They can create alternate stories, providing a different focus for the same story or making access to an important story particularly difficult.

During the election, President Trump has shown that he’s a master at diverting the media’s attention from what it wants to talk about to some throwaway comment he made. While it’s important to hold him accountable for making those comments, we also have to resist that urge to follow every volley he throws our way that muddies the water and makes his concrete actions less visible.

On Jan. 20, as the Daily reported, Stanford students showed up in huge numbers to march around campus in reaction to Trump’s inauguration. It was a large group with signs and chants that covered many issues, but I was struck by one in particular. It was a chant that asked, “What does a democracy look like?” The resounding answer was that this is what democracy looks like — all those people, out on the streets, voicing their opinions and standing up for each other. Being loud and being present and being engaged is what democracy looks like.

But the part of democracy that is not as visible is the information that runs it — the facts, figures and studies we need to have conversations and keep our reality solid and protect it from “alternate” facts. We need this information on record, in the light, and the creators to be free to do so without political meddling.

On Jan. 20, Stanford exhibited a great love for this country and hope for what it can be if we all stand together. That energy, that will and that resolve can’t stop on day one or two or 100 — it needs to keep going. We need to keep paying attention so President Trump knows that we are here, we are watching, and he’s not going to get away with anything.

 

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

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