Editorial: On Trump, the free press and democracy
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” wrote the leader of a fledgling government in the years following a bloody revolution and transfer of power by force. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
While that may sound like a propaganda line from a totalitarian autocrat like Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong, it was none other than founding father Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1807 to offer advice to a colleague considering launching his own newspaper.
It’s seems the Fourth Estate has gotten a bad rap by some Presidents since, well, ever.
Of course, POTUS 3’s irritations with the 19th century press of the day – which covered such “scandals” as Jefferson’s love of France, his wavering faith and his alleged fathering of children with slave Sally Hemmings, all of which turned out to be more or less true – never swayed him from the ideal that such a free press, as much as he at times disagreed with it, was an essential component to the promise of democracy.
“The only security of all is in a free press,” Jefferson famously said about the First Amendment.
Well, times have certainly changed.
This week, editorial pages across the country are answering a call from the Boston Globe for newspapers to collectively, yet individually, respond to President Trump’s so-called war on the media – his semi-frequent attempts to cloud the often embarrassing stories being reported in the press about his administration by ignoring their veracity and damning their credibility.
Trump’s fallback response to media reports about his various falsehoods, indecencies and corruptions is to either undermine its credibility as “fake,” or lob ad hominem attacks at its messengers – calling journalists “scum,” “slime” and worse.
“I would never kill them but I do hate them,” he said of reporters in 2015. “And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”
Because views on the President are so unwavering to so many, it’s easy to disregard his invective. His “base” already believes the “liberal press” is slanted; the rest dismiss it as the tantrums of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
But his insistence that the media is “the enemy of the people” – the specific charge that has brought about the Globe’s crusade to punch back – crosses a line beyond lowly name calling. Names can never hurt us, goes the old schoolyard mantra, but “enemy of the people” accusations are the sticks and stones that can break the bones.
As Republican Sen. Jeff Flake observed last January on the Senate floor:
“So fraught with malice was the phrase (enemy of the people) that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet communist party that the phase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals” who disagreed the supreme leader.”
And then Flake got to his point: “Of course, the President has it precisely backward. Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy.”
Not only is a free press the despot’s enemy, but it should be a dogged antagonist to the venal, the corrupt, the swindlers, cheats and takers everywhere. “The press’s job is to ask the questions people don’t want us to ask,” an editor of ours once said.