President Trump’s version of an honest press is one that doesn’t question, that doesn’t investigate, that doesn’t seek the truth. He expects loyal acquiescence, propaganda on demand, and when he doesn’t get it — when he faces journalistic scrutiny — he lashes out with a bully’s grade-school taunts. Veracity scares him because of what may rest behind the closed doors of Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.
Journalists crave facts, wherever they may lead; Trump fears them. So he calls truthful coverage “fake news” and labels reputable news organizations as “the enemy of the people” and fuels a dangerous machine of distrust that we pray doesn’t turn more mean-spirited and potentially violent.
Trump is many things — monied, narcissistic, crude, xenophobic, wholly uninterested in deeper knowledge — but he isn’t original. Every president has fought one way or another with the media, a few famously so. On this, Trump is merely another president who wants facts hidden from public view.
George Washington’s second term was marked by the fledgling nation’s increasingly partisan and aggressive newspapers. John Adams, in 1798, signed into law the Sedition Act, making it illegal to publish stories critical of the U.S. government.
Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and two-term president, despised the press. “Throughout the war, and from my candidacy for my present office in 1868 to the close of the last presidential campaign,” he said, “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.” Theodore Roosevelt got so mad at what he perceived as malicious coverage of the building of the Panama Canal that he sued Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World for libel. (The case was dismissed.)
During World War I, Woodrow Wilson established a propaganda division of the U.S. government, the Committee on Public Information. And Richard Nixon? He distrusted everyone, especially Washington Post reporters whom he barred from White House social functions, and wondered about finding ways to discredit CBS’ Walter Cronkite.
The difference is in Trump’s volume, a voice not of reason but of derision and mockery. That’s his shtick — an embarrassing trait for the leader of the free world, the Republican Party that fecklessly enables him and our nation at large. Trump’s favored “enemy of the people” pejorative has been used for centuries by autocrats and despots in Rome, in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union to condemn minority groups or those seen as hostile to their rule. When Trump uses it, he aligns himself with some of history’s worst human beings.
An America without a vibrant press is an America susceptible to political corruption, to government run amok, to an America where leaders answer to only the rich and powerful. University researchers have found a direct correlation recently between the loss of local journalism and a deterioration of city finances. Imagine the councils of Anniston and Oxford if reporters weren’t there to document their votes. A free press is a bulwark against ethics-free politicians who care more about themselves than the citizens who elected them. “You can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures,” said professor Chang Lee of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
With every fiber we can muster, the members of The Star’s editorial board will defend journalists against Trump’s barrage of unwarranted and dangerous labels. We join today with hundreds of U.S. newspapers in this effort. An overwhelming number of professionals in the Fourth Estate are committed to the core principles of journalism: facts, ethics and truth.