The press: Are journalists ‘the enemy of the people’?
The adversarial relationship between the press and the president is “as old as the republic itself,” said Jon Finer in TheAtlantic.com. But President Trump’s constant attacks on “the press as an institution,” which escalated sharply last week, are “something new and potentially dangerous” for our democracy. At a wildly combative White House press conference, Trump loudly berated reporters as “dishonest” peddlers of “fake news,” and said the press “is out of control.” Perhaps most chilling, though, was a tweet in which the president labeled the mainstream media “the enemy of the American people!” This snappy phrase has an ugly history, said Will Bunch in the Philadelphia Daily News. Hitler, Mao, and Lenin all used “enemies of the people” to discredit and incite violence against anyone who dared to question their authority. As Republican Sen. John McCain put it this week, attacking the legitimacy of the free press is “how dictators get started.”
Let’s not overreact, said Jack Shafer in Politico.com. “There is no more consistent political tradition in America than presidents delegitimizing the press.” FDR once gave a reporter a dunce’s hat and told him to sit in the corner. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made false criticism of his government a crime. President Trump is simply putting the press on notice, said Michael Goodwin in NYPost.com. He is calling out biased reporters for “trying to destroy his presidency,” and is making it clear that if “journalists behave like opponents, he will treat them like opponents, punching back harder than they punch him.”
Sorry, but Trump’s attack on the press is both unprecedented and “ominous,” said James Fallows in TheAtlantic.com. Other presidents have complained about how they’ve been covered by the media; Trump is essentially claiming the media has no right to ask him questions he’d rather not answer, or to write stories he deems negative and unfair. In his black-and-white way, he actually thinks the entire media should turn into a propaganda organ like Fox News, which Trump called “very honorable.”
His goals are more sinister even than that, said Bret Stephens in Time. When the press catches him in one of his many lies, such as his claim that millions of people illegally voted in the election, Trump always responds, Well, that’s what “many people say.” This is an Orwellian attack on not just the media but also the idea of “objectivity itself.” Trump wants to be president of a nation where “there is no such thing as truth.”
If so, his plan isn’t working, said Lloyd Grove in TheDailyBeast.com. The departure last week of national security adviser Michael Flynn was the direct result of aggressive reporting by The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have only just begun to dig into the tangle of secrets, chaos, and corruption in the White House. If anything, “journalism as an institution has reasserted itself” in the Age of Trump. It badly needs to, said Linda Feldmann in CSMonitor.com. Even though major newspapers and websites report that circulation and traffic are surging because of interest in Trump, polls find that trust in the media is still “at an all-time low.” How journalists respond to Trump’s open hostility and to his norm-shattering approach to governing will go a long way toward determining how the public sees the press: Is it “a biased meddler, or an essential pillar of American democracy”? ■