Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about freedom of the press. Yes, THAT Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States. Jefferson was a lot of things, but he was foremost a writer. He staunchly believed in the power of the pen and called the printing of books an “art.” By the time he was elected President, Jefferson had grown annoyed with how partisan newspapers had become. Despite that, he still believed in the essential right of the papers to not only report the news, but to offer opinions. He wrote, “The only security of all is in a free press.”
The President of the United States swears an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Part of that Constitution is the Bill of Rights, including the top-loaded First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Then, this week, President Donald J. Trump tweeted this: “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!” This is just his most recent attack on a First Amendment right, not his only.
First of all, the consistent use of Twitter by the President is reckless behavior, at best. Official government communiques should reflect the gravity of their purpose. Twitter only offers opportunity for gravity when one has clearly, deliberately, and coherently considered how to craft a meaningful message in just 280 characters. What we have seen from the President via Twitter is a slew of rash personal attacks and careless policy pronouncements which could have severe consequences.
Secondly, the phrase “fake news” is an oxymoron. News is real. You may not like what it tells you, but that doesn’t make it any less real. The truth is often hard to hear and accept, but that’s what adults do. They deal with the hard realities of life.
Thirdly, the continual verbal and written assaults on the free press do a grave injustice to all Americans, even those who may hate the media as much as the President. Others who have called the free press the “Enemy of the People” were dictators and thugs: Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Goebbels. This is not good company to hold, Mr. President, and they all presided over regimes the United States fought against in a variety of conflicts over many decades.
Fourthly, it makes no sense to categorize a newspaper or a network in simply the columns of friend or foe. For better or worse, here’s how the media works here in the United States. Each outlet, whether it’s newspaper, radio, or television network, is a stand-alone corporation. That’s part of our system of capitalism at work. Those that can make money by selling ads or newspapers or both will continue. Those that can’t will perish. The rise of the internet has created new challenges for all mediums as they struggle to maintain ad revenue to keep cranking out the news, just as the rise of 24 hour news in the 1980’s opened up new challenges as well. Content was no longer focused on a single summary of the days’ events, but spread out to include breaking news, more global news (that has shrunk along with budgets), and more talking heads to spout opinion under the guise of “news” shows. Ted Turner was first, bringing CNN to life in 1980. CNBC arose later that decade, and then FOX News and MSNBC joined the fray in the mid 1990’s. While the hosts of shows on each of these networks may have their own agendas, those agendas can change, so be careful who you choose to embrace or push away. People can be fickle, and so can advertisers.
It is worth noting that the current President has played the media to his own advantage for decades. He couldn’t get enough publicity from newspapers, magazines, and syndicated radio shows just for being a wealthy New York City socialite. So he created his own TV persona with The Apprentice that showcased him as a business mogul. It’s called reality TV, but I have sincerely always wondered whose reality these made up shows represent.
Donald Trump would not have been elected president if actual reporters had been doing their job in 2016. For decades every candidate for president has had their entire life scrutinized. Their personal lives have been examined and their finances dissected. Every paper they wrote in law school was studied. Every union position they held was analyzed. Every position they ever took on every issue when they were mayor or governor or senator was searched for underlying meaning. That was not the case with Donald Trump. The media never took him seriously as a candidate, so he did not receive the same kind of background research other candidates have faced. ALL other candidates, regardless of party. He understands how the media works and played that to his advantage. So some journalists gave him a pass. Not all, but some. And questions about his fitness for office and his financial dealings and his stands on actual policy were glossed over while his supporters shouted “build that wall” or “lock her up.”
He should be thanking the media. Instead, he now sees that they have come to their senses and are doing their job, which is to QUESTION EVERYTHING, just as they have with every single president for decades. Without journalists on the job the Watergate scandal would not have existed, and we never would have heard the name Monica Lewinsky. Journalists don’t really care about which political party elected a President, they just want to keep an eye and an ear on what the President is doing, because a President’s behavior and actions affect our entire country and often the world. The media is not persecuting him. They are doing their job to expose the workings of government to the people.
Journalists don’t start wars, but they have died covering wars started by presidents, and they have died at the hands of dictators. And just six weeks ago some of them died at the hand of a shooter who felt a newspaper in Baltimore was his enemy.
Thank you journalists, for standing up to a bully who calls you the enemy. Thanks for getting back to business and reporting on the dangerous divisions in this bifurcated nation. You didn’t cause the discord, but you are calling it like you see it. We need you now more than ever, free press. Keep up the good work.