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President Donald J. Trump speaks to throngs of supporters at a rally in May.

Voices / Editorial

Make no mistake: This attack on our free press — your free press — is deliberate and calculated.

When our free press does its job, the president protects himself by blaming the messenger. That is not only wrong. It’s also un-American.

Editorials represent the collective voice of The Commons and are written by the editors. We present our point of view not to have the last word, but the first: we heartily encourage letters from readers, and we love spirited dialogue even if — especially if — you disagree with us. Send your letters to voices@commonsnews.org, or leave a comment at commonsnews.org.

A conversation about the news media in our politics and our society — good, bad, and in between — should be a healthy exercise for those of us who care about the United States of America, where freedom of the press is enshrined as a core and precious pillar of our nation.

There is no one good way to narrow down a definition of “the press.” Members of the press end up being anyone, from traditional corporate news operations to the young students at a school newspaper. One could be speaking of scrappy and seasoned freelancers or political operatives out for low blows.

So when our president makes a blanket statement that “the press is the enemy of the people,” that statement is too broad to mean much of anything.

At the same time, it doesn’t have to. Those words are just enough to convey to the president’s supporters that those of us in the press, any of us, all of us, are not to be trusted, ever. That we are disloyal and damaging. That we need to be reined in and silenced.

* * *

At our best, we in the media remain thoughtful and introspective about the decisions that we as reporters and editors make, often without the luxury of time — and, increasingly and alarmingly at the national level — without any precedent.

There is no stylebook reference for how we best address the fact that the president of the United States and the people with whom he surrounds himself routinely lie about anything and everything, without the slightest hint of shame.

Reporters have been resolute in unraveling the thread of the big metaphorical ostrich coat of scandals. They have let sunlight shine on a national political environment — a vast and very wet swampland of craziness, incompetence, corruption, and criminality.

Between the indictments and the trial of the president’s former campaign manager, a sequence of events is emerging that is casting a shadow on the Trump administration as a whole. Add to that cover-ups and payoffs of porn stars and centerfold models. Then add the incontrovertible evidence of election interference by the Russian state, along with growing evidence that the Trump campaign participated in, benefited from, or at least condoned behavior that at the very best is anti-American and at the very worst is unambiguously illegal.

And for the president of the country, who bears responsibility for this disgrace and incoherence, it is a lot easier to protect himself by blaming the messenger.

* * *

Donald J. Trump’s rallies are increasingly more hostile and less American to degrees that should terrify all of us, no matter what our political inclinations.

These rallies are designed to energize the president’s political base. These Trump fans love and trust their president. They believe him. And when he says, over and over, that the press is the enemy of the people, they are inclined to believe that to their core.

In fact, a recent poll revealed that 48 percent of Republicans agree with the president. And 43 percent of Republicans think that the president should “have the authority to close news outlets engaged in ‘bad behavior,’” according to a USA Today story about the poll.

In other words, if you believe the words of our president — as so many of us have been encouraged by our schools and our society to do as a matter of principle — of course the media’s reporting news that contradicts the White House’s messaging is going to seem like “fake news.”

That is chilling.

It is also increasingly dangerous for those of us who do this work. Are we that far away from the point where shutting us up and teaching us a lesson will be considered an act of patriotism in the service of Making America Great Again?

Judging from the president’s multiple public appearances where he has encouraged his base to rough up people who disagree, it’s not the least bit paranoid or unrealistic to imagine a time and a place in the United States of America where reporters doing their jobs can be hurt or killed.

Make no mistake, this attack on our free press — your free press — is deliberate and calculated.

Shortly after Trump took office, veteran CBS journalist Lesley Stahl was interviewing the president. Off-camera, she asked him why he persisted on vilifying the media even after he had won.

“And he said: ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’”

There is an enemy of the people in this story, but the press sure isn’t it.

* * *

This week, we are proud to participate in a collective effort of more than 200 news operations organized by The Boston Globe to address the “enemy of the people” issue en masse and to tell the Trump administration, in one loud collective voice, that this rhetoric is dangerous to individuals and to all for which our democracy stands.

Some Trump supporters will take issue with our words here and the words of journalists in newsrooms all across the country. Those supporters will likely react just as the president has encouraged them to: by denouncing the media, by calling us liars, by wearing T-shirts like the one seen at a Trump rally last year: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Fine. Don’t believe us just because we urge you to.

Instead, think about and read your news critically. Click on a story, and stop and think for a minute, then poke around. Who are the sources, and are they named? If not, why not? How much of the report is news and how much is opinion? Who is the publisher? Who is responsible for the words? What stories are present? Which are missing? What is the political ideology of the publication?

The biggest injustice of Trump’s smear of the press presumes that a Trump supporter cannot and will not think critically and fairly about their news. The president’s supporters deserve to be held to a higher standard.

In the meantime, we can all agree that the press is not perfect. It never was, and it never will be. But the best of the news media hold themselves to the fairest of standards. We are resolutely driven to get to the truth and its meaning.

The very purpose of a free press as a cornerstone of democracy is to expose untruth, injustice and breaches of public interest, to speak truth to power, to uncover stories that need to be told, and to provide a medium for exchange of information. That is why it’s been enshrined in the fabric of this democracy, and without it, without an informed electorate, democracy simply cannot survive. Period.

At our best, the news media exposes untruth, injustice, and breaches of the public interest at all levels, from your town’s Selectboard, to the Vermont Statehouse, to the White House. We hold our government — your government, of the people, by the people, and for the people — accountable.

And nothing will change that — not even the incendiary rhetoric of a manifestly unqualified, dangerous, and corrupt leader elected with a foreign hand on the scale.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Janet Wallstein
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Aug 2018
Janet Wallstein

Absolutely brilliant, Jon. Impassioned, articulate and spot on.

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Darlene Smith
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Darlene Smith (Culpeper, Virginia, US)

Excellent article! Honest, direct and straightforward.

I am extremely worried for our country. Somehow the country needs to rid itself of Trump, Pence and all of the cabinet members. They are destroying our country. I cannot fathom how anyone can support any person who lies without any conscience and is deranged. I have great fear for our country and our freedoms.

I wholeheartedly support the free press and anyone working to keep the truth from being buried.

Thank you

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Judith Skillman
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Judith Skillman (Newcastle, US)

Excellent and informative writing about the media and about the state of our nation. We must support the press speak truth to power, now more than ever before.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US)

We are also obliged to criticize the press when they merely echo the lies of the powerful. In this case, much of the press has taken a side, not just against the policies of the President, but against the election itself on behalf of the parties of war and Wall St. Just as the US has in the past agitated in other countries for coups against democratic outcomes they don’t like, much of the press, including this editorial, is now agitating for a coup here at home.

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Peter Ford
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Peter Ford (Dallas)

Nailed it - Thank you.

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TB Smith
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TB Smith (Ba, Oklahoma, US)

The divisiveness brought on by this shamefully poor excuse for a president has been once again, borne out by this article, and the responses to it .. his most devoted followers are the most gullible and easily swayed sheeple since the "Kool-Aid party in Jonestown" ... those who stand up the most fervently to this dictator "wanabe", will , inthe end, see him and the fellow purveyors of his garbage rhetoric like FOX News, Alex Jones, Breitbart, etc., crumble and be dumped like stale crackers (pardon the pun) .. we must impeach this tyrant before too much damage is done, either from within or outside our borders.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US)

So it’s OK that access to outlets that simply recognize Trump as President is indeed being shut down? But isn’t that exactly what this editorial is against? Should outlets that cheered on Obama’s wars and love of Wall St have likewise been shut down? Only John Birch Society–inspired screeds against Trump indicate the “legitimate” press?

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US)

TB Smith’s comment in apparent support of the us-vs-them tone of this editorial illustrates why so many people distrust so much of the press (although, again, it appears to be only pro-Trump and anti-imperialist outlets that are actually being shut down): They are promulgating hysterical claims about fascism, Russians, and “crackers” not in the interest of the people, but wholly on behalf of the neoliberal/neoconservative program of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama to deny Trump the Presidency and even remove him from office – not democratically, but by coup if necessary. That makes the press rather anti-democratic and, indeed, against the people.

 
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Originally published in The Commons issue #472 (Wednesday, August 15, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

Links

“Journalists are not the enemy”: Aug. 16 editorial from The Boston Globe, with links to the work of all participating newspapers, including this one.

“A Free Press Needs You”: Aug. 15 editorial from The New York Times, with links to the work of all participating newspapers, including this one.

Links to editorials from participating newspapers in New England, in a list compiled by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

“200 newspapers join Globe effort on freedom of the press editorials,” The Boston Globe

“Trump Embraces ‘Enemy of the People,’ a Phrase With a Fraught History,” The New York Times

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