[H]ere’s the truth: The press is not the opposition party. The media is not the enemy of the American people. Negative stories are not fake news. And when Trump keeps making these claims, he isn’t just attacking the press; he is chipping away at one of the pillars of our democracy. It means something that a president who is all over the map on policy is so single-minded about going after reporters every chance he gets. In a Friday tweet, Trump raised the stakes, calling the media “a great danger to our country.”
It feels like a question from an 8th-grade civics class: “What’s the first thing a tyrant does when seeking to consolidate power and eliminate dissent?” The answer: “Intimidate and suppress news outlets which won’t willingly print the necessary propaganda.”
That seems like a line straight out of 1984. Few of his contemporaries considered George Orwell a prophet, but the Trump Administration has (posthumously) given his ideas new life. To Donald Trump’s way of thinking, “free press” means “a press free to print what makes me look good.” Thus does democracy begin to die.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier Friday, Trump again bashed “fake news,” [as] though he’s the one with only a passing relationship with the truth. He complained about leaks and anonymous sources, though his administration is perfectly happy to take advantage of both. He even claimed that the media says its coverage can’t be criticized because of freedom of the press.
“I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me,” he said. “Nobody.”
For someone who claims to revere the 1st Amendment, he certainly has an oddly distressing way of demonstrating that affection.
[W]hat’s more alarming is that he also said the media “doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it.”
It’s not clear what the president plans. He talked during the campaign about changing the law so that it’s easier for politicians to sue for libel and slander – a terrible idea that would discourage robust reporting.
And what if an unhinged supporter takes Trump’s rhetoric seriously and literally and physically assaults a journalist? What will the president say then?
Trump is choosing a phrase – “enemy of the people” – that has been used by communist dictators and Nazi propagandists.
Perhaps the historical allusions escape this President. Perhaps he’s so busy staring into the mirror and asking “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” to grasp the irony of his language. After all, this is a man who more than once has called reporters posing as his own publicist talking up his own self-ascribed brilliance.
Particularly distressing is the reality that few Republicans have stepped up to defend the press. A notable exception, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) offered the knowledgeable observation, “That’s how dictators get started.” One need not travel far back in history to understand how true that is. That it’s creating so little opposition from Republicans should tell you all you really need to know about what today’s GOP values above all else: power.
It’s not as if the Trump Administration is beginning to realize it would be in their best interest to not go to war with the Fourth Estate. Far from it. Stephen Bannon, the President’s chief strategist and a self-proclaimed “Leninist,” has made it clear conflicts with the press are “not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.”
Another part of the White House strategy, it seems, is to trap reporters. When there are leaks, officials sometimes wait until after the news story is published to respond. This apparently happened earlier this month when The Associated Press reported that a draft memo showed the administration was considering calling up National Guard troops for immigration raids.
It’s a cynical ploy. The administration can see how popular its ideas are and pull them back if they’re too controversial. When the most extreme versions don’t happen, it further damages the media’s credibility. And if the public is unsure about what’s real, it opens up more room for Trump to do what he wants.
So reporters need to be aggressive, but also careful. Journalists can’t get too defensive, or distracted from doing our jobs, or lose sight of what Trump is actually doing – giving Wall Street free rein, looking out for the wealthy and tearing down government.
A President’s relationship with the press has traditionally been (and should be) adversarial. No one likes someone poking around, checking under every rock. That’s not a comfortable feeling, though being President means accepting the reality that life occurs in a fishbowl; every thought, word, and deed will be parsed for meaning and significance. That may not be enjoyable, but it’s the job. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
The good news is that Americans are beginning to take a closer look at the importance of a free press. They’re reacquainting themselves with the truth that the 1st Amendment is and will always be crucial to the survival of American democracy. The mission of the Fourth Estate has seldom been more clear and more vital.
The press can, should, and MUST hold Donald Trump and the enemies of democracy in his Administration accountable- fairly, honestly, and accurately. What the President decries as “fake news” is merely coverage which paints him in a less than flattering light. Any reporting which fails to bathe him in the blinding white light of unvarnished adulation is decried as biased- “fake news.”
The public deserves to know. The public has a RIGHT to know. The way that knowledge is arrived at is through the efforts of journalists who endeavor to get at the truth to the best of their ability. It’s not a perfect system, and being populated as it is by fallible human beings, bias will creep in. That’s not “fake news,” that’s professionals doing their level best to report the truth quickly, accurately, and honestly.
For the record, you can’t claim “I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me” even as you and your underlings are actively working to subvert news outlets you’ve determined to be “unfriendly.” You don’t get to call legitimate journalism “fake news” because they, unlike Right-wing media outlets, don’t faithfully parrot propaganda generated by your Administration.
The free press exists to protect America from dime-store tyrants like Donald Trump. If we value democracy, we must continue to support the right of the Fourth Estate to do what they do. Honest journalism is one of the things which protects America from fascism and tyranny. It’s why President Trump and his Administration are so vocal and aggressive in their opposition; they know they can only win if they stifle dissent…or, in this case, honest reporting.
Democracy dies in darkness. Nice work, America.