“Our liberty depends on freedom of the press…”
The past 19 months have seen the erosion of trust in American institutions in ways only our worst enemies could have wished. The Intelligence Community, the FBI, the Judiciary, the Justice Department, the State Department – Trump seems to think these institutions are his to command and that loyalty to him, not the Constitution, is the standard for their existence. He publicly questions their findings and insults and denigrates them on the world stage. What more could Russia want?
Trump has attacked American institutions generally but none more than the media, because unlike the others, the press is an ever-present source of information. Its job, across a variety of platforms, is to report events as they happen – here and across the globe. At its best, it’s an independent arbiter of the truth. Obviously, this includes reporting news from the administration – and more and more, the press has become the target of Trump’s wrath.
A free press, the essence of democracy, is now, according to Trump, “the enemy of the people.” They are “scum,” “disgusting,” “liars,” “the most dishonest humans,” “vicious,” “fools,” “horrible,” “America’s biggest enemy.”
Think of that – not Russia, not North Korea, not Iran, not even ISIS, but according to Trump, the American press is “America’s biggest enemy.”
Leslie Stahl, in a discussion with Trump prior to a “60 Minutes” interview, asked him why he demeans and vilifies the press so much. In a rare moment of candor, Trump replied, “I do it to discredit you all so that when you write negative things about me, no one will believe you.”
On this, he has done a magnificent job. The term, “fake news” is now ubiquitous. If he doesn’t like a particular article, or reporter, or network, or book, or forum or platform, it’s “fake news.” Articles critical of him or his policies are relegated to the trash heap of “fake news.” He may be as dumb as a dodo, but when it comes to manipulating an eager and fearful public looking for both validation and scapegoats, he’s a genius.
The first time he insults and slanders a person or publication, it’s shocking. But that shock rapidly fades; like any good demagogue, repeat, rinse and repeat. Repetition is the key. If you hear it all the time, it becomes expected. He can start a sentence and his followers finish it. The lie becomes truth while what is accurately reported becomes “fake news.” Trump is Orwell’s reality on steroids.
The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review cautions that these attacks on the press are really an attack on facts. Citing NYU professor Jay Rosen on the impact of media bashing, “If we can’t agree on what the facts are, if there are no facts because they’re in endless dispute, there is no accountability.”
As Trump said, “Don’t believe what you’re reading or seeing.” He has managed to delegitimize truth, and in the process, any accountability for his actions, because there’s no widely accepted version of what they are. How fortunate for him.
Here’s a dose of truth. In terms of the popular vote, Trump came in third, with “I’m sitting this one out” winning, Clinton second and Trump last. And his support is waning.
Here’s another dose of truth. Words have consequences. When the president of the United States says the press is “America’s greatest enemy,” what is a Trump “patriot” to do when confronted with a reporter? The legal defense practically writes itself.
It’s prophetic that the Founders were able to predict so far into the future. Thomas Jefferson said, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should be to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
As if to prove Jefferson’s caution, Steve Bannon summed up this administration’s view when he told The New York Times that the press should just “keep its mouth shut.”
Should that happen, this great experiment, “that man may be governed by reason and truth,” comes to an end.
There will be heroes after all this is over. Counted high among them will be the publishers, reporters, commentators, networks, journalists and others covering all the platforms who have refused to keep their collective mouths shut, and who, amid threats, insults and intimidation, have persevered in their efforts to tell the truth.
Marsha Shearer is a Villager and a frequent contributor to Villages-News.com.