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.
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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.
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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.
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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.