Chris Dzombak

How to kill a news organization, as head of state in a reasonably free and democratic country

A thought experiment.

Let’s suppose — hypothetically — you’ve just been elected as the head of state in a modern Western democratic country. (Congrats, I guess.) But there’s this pesky news organization that keeps asking questions, digging up dirt on your coalition, and generally annoying you. How might you deal with that?

You can’t just order the organization to stop reporting. Half the citizens — maybe more — would be a little disturbed by that. You still have to appear to play nice with the country’s constitution. And it turns out that libel laws vary by state in your country, so your advisers say you can’t just change them all in one go. That’s too bad … but you can wage and probably win a more subtle war.

Hopefully you’ve been badmouthing the news organization during your campaign. Calling it biased, crooked; calling its reporters liars. Saying publicly that its reporting on verifiable facts is incorrect, and outright lying that it said things it didn’t. (Ideally nobody fact-checked this, and if they did it didn’t matter to your supporters.) Promising to sue the organization. And attacking its reporters, personally.

Even if you didn’t do that during the campaign, it’s not too late! Just keep reminding your supporters how bad! this organization is. Lie about its influence. The idea here is to delegitimize the organization. By now most of your supporters don’t think it deserves to exist. And as head-of-state-elect you have legitimacy to assert that. So from now until you take office, you’ll want to keep up with the rhetoric: the organization is corrupt, it’s failing, and it can’t be trusted.

This is a good time to initiate one or two lawsuits against the organization, ideally following up on promises you made during the campaign. This will demonstrate to your supporters that you plan to keep your promises, keep your base fired up, and normalize this kind of attack — important for your post-inaugural strategy.

After you take office, let things sit for several months. Make sure you have control of the federal criminal investigation and law enforcement agencies. (Ideally, at least some of them overtly supported you during the election.) When you need to appoint a judge, pick someone friendly. (Ideally, your party has control of your country’s legislature, which will make that a bit easier.)

As the year goes on, direct those agencies begin to investigate and prosecute the organization. You should find some semi-legitimate cover for this — maybe they published some secret information at some point, or they have an anonymous source in your administration? The idea at this stage is to begin attacking the organization with the force of the government, not just via personal civil lawsuits.

Of course, you’ll want to keep up your own delegitimization campaign throughout this whole process, and maybe file a couple more personal civil suits for the slights you’ve endured.

After a year or so in office, with an ongoing campaign of delegitimization, some federal criminal investigations in progress, and a few personal civil suits under your belt, you’ll want to prosecute an individual reporter from the organization. Maybe they encouraged a source to leak classified information? Or refused to name a source? Surely a federal law enforcement investigation can find something. Ideally you’ll win, but either way, the point at this stage is to start scaring reporters and sources alike.

This is a good time to start really using the massive domestic surveillance tooling assembled by your predecessor’s administration. Begin surveilling the organization and its reporters; monitor their phones and movements; spy on their laptops and the organization’s internal network. This information is going to be critical in the next stage.

At this point federal law enforcement agencies will have the information they need to begin a full-scale legal assault on the organization. Find reasons to open criminal investigations against the organization, its reporters, and their sources. It doesn’t matter too much whether these reasons are clearly solid reasons to open a prosecution. All you need are halfway-decent reasons to drag everyone involved through a lengthy witch-hunt of an investigation, even if it never results in a successful prosecution.

Be sure to cover up sketchy evidence-gathering methods through parallel construction, of course.

These ongoing investigations will be a gold mine for your tweets delegitimizing the news organization. With ongoing criminal investigations, most citizens will have to assume that the organization is just as dirty as you claim.

As a bonus, if your surveillance reveals interesting scoops, you can leak them to other news organizations, destroying some of your target organization’s competitive advantage.

Finally, after enough investigations and prosecutions, you win. Even if you don’t jail everyone you prosecute, after enough sources’ and reporters’ lives are ruined, it’ll be clear that going anywhere near the news organization is a recipe for personal disaster. Combine those victories with protracted criminal prosecutions and fines against the organization itself to attack it from every side until it crumbles. With some care, you can probably accomplish this by the end of your first term in office!