Editorial: On Trump, the free press and democracy

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“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.

And that’s exactly the kind of press that brings the deceitful to a cold sweat.

And the President’s been awfully sweaty of late. “The fake news is going crazy,” he wrote, following reports from almost all media outlets which condemned his equivocating brutal dictator Vladimir Putin’s denials of U.S. election meddling with the substantial evidence to the contrary by his own intelligence agencies.

Trump’s fear of a free press isn’t unfounded – after all, it regularly exposes his myriad failings. And, for that, the commonwealth owes him one small indebtedness; for every Oval Office indiscretion exposed on the pages of the New York Times, a dozen biz majors transfer to J-school.

American journalism isn’t cowering under Trump’s protestations, it’s thriving.

But the same can’t be said in more volatile global arenas – where political strongmen are co-opting Trump’s tactics to clamp down on presses whose freedoms are marginal to begin with. The governments of Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Thailand and Somalia have all invoked “fake news” as justifications for the people to ignore their reported failings, corruptions and human-rights abuses.

As the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily, wrote: ““If the president of the United States claims that his nation’s leading media outlets are a stain on America, then negative news about China and other countries should be taken with a grain of salt, since it is likely that bias and political agendas are distorting the real picture.”

An “official newspaper” of a one-party state lambasting America’s so-called “fake news.” Irony isn’t just dead in Trump America, it’s rotting.

The Sonoma Index-Tribune is 2,800 miles from the Washington; we don’t cover the White House, we cover the “beige house,” Sonoma City Hall. The paper was founded in 1879 and, over the years, has boasted such subscribers as town founder Mariano Vallejo, columnists as Hap Arnold and devoted ownership – most notably by the Lynch family, which ushered the paper into its glory years as the curtain drew on the 20th century. The closest a President ever came to our offices, to my knowledge, was in 1941 when then-actor Ronald Reagan was in town for a premier screening of “The Sea Wolf.”

But President Trump’s indictments of the press are as much about the Times, Post and Globe as they are about the I-T and thousands of community media like us. We are subject to human error as any press. Yet we strive to report facts, embrace accuracy and reflect and inform our community as any free press in America.

The only difference is that instead of Capitol Hill, we prefer to report from Arnold Drive, Highway 12 and Council Chambers.

When asked to weigh in on the White House media attacks, Bill Lynch, former editor and publisher of the I-T, described the “great value” of newspapers like the Index-Tribune is in that we are “not answerable to our government, but to our readers who know who we are and where they can find us.”

“We remain one of the last bastions of reliable, verifiable news and information from a known source,” said Lynch. “We are the antidote to the prodigious and poisonous misinformation that flows continuously from unidentifiable sources as well as from the self-serving people in power who, if they could, would shut us down.”

But shut us down they won’t. Any free press worth its weight in ink will make sure of that.

Enemy of the people be damned. We are by the people, for the people.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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