Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Free Press: If You Can Keep It!

      Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as giving a blunt warning when asked as he left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, "What have you given us?" His answer: "A Republic, if you can keep it." James Madison might have given the same answer four years later if asked about what became the First Amendment: "A free press if you can keep it."
      Barely seven years later, a partisan Congress and president demonstrated the ominous risks to freedom of the press in a poisoned political environment. The Federalist Congress and Federalist president John Adams combined to enact a law, the Alien and Sedition Acts, that resulted in the jailing of several Anti-Federalist journalists for opposing the government's policies.
      Two and a quarter centuries later, freedom of the press is again at risk in a politically poisoned environment. President Donald Trump tries to shore up his unpopular presidency by nonstop fake attacks on so-called "fake news" and on journalists that he labels as "the enemy of the people." As political scientist Brian Klaas noted in his book The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy, Trump's attacks are too close for comfort to Hitler's attacks on the Lügenpresse ("lying press") and to similar tactics of lesser autocrats.
      Distressingly, Trump's attacks have misled too many Americans, especially Republicans, into misunderstanding and devaluing the essential role that a free press plays in a democracy. Public opinion polls over the past year have registered declining support for the news media and, worse, increasing support for the government to have power to control or even shut down select news organizations.
      Here are some figures: 42 percent of self-identified Republicans surveyed in a Quinnipiac University poll released in June agreed with Trump that the press is "the enemy of the people;" 42 percent of Republicans surveyed in an NPR/PBS News Hour poll also released in June said the United States has gone too far in expanding freedom of the press.
      In an earlier poll in October, a survey of registered voters by Politico-Morning Consult found that 46 percent believed major news media fabricate stories about Trump. It is beyond irony that a president who has been found to have uttered lies and falsehoods thousands of times in the White House is believed when he claims, without any specific examples, to be victim of "fake news."
      The same survey found that 28 percent of registered voters favored allowing the government to revoke broadcast licenses of news organizations that the government accuses of fabricating stories about the government or the administration. Somewhat encouragingly, a majority — 51 percent — rejected the suggestion.
      America's newspapers, more than 300 of them, and the U.S. Senate gave a more thoughtful and more unified answer last week to Trump's calumnious charge that journalists are enemies of the people. For its part, the Senate adopted without dissenting vote a resolution sponsored by Hawaii's junior Democratic senator Brian Schatz declaring that the press "is not the enemy of the people." Without naming Trump, the resolution went to describe efforts to undermine the credibility of the press as "an attack on the democratic institutions of the United States."
      Trump has done more than criticize the news media; he has actively encouraged his followers to jeer and even threaten members of the news media. Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist with the New York Times, described in a recent column the graphic voice mail threat he received from a reader and that he viewed as the natural result of Trump's "demonization" of the media. In the Quinnipiac poll, 14 percent of the Republicans surveyed said it was sometimes appropriate for a politician to react to a member of the news media with violence.
      The 300 newspapers that joined in editorial denunciation of Trump's tactics and defense of the press's role in a democracy last week [Aug. 16] did so in part out of financial self-interest. Newspapers are hurting financially and cutting their reporting staffs. But newspapers are also rightly concerned about their reporters' safety. The shooter who killed five staff members of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., had been angry for years, but he resorted to deadly violence only with Trump in office.
      At their best, newspapers and other news media keep the politicians honest and the government in check. The two young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are rightly given much of the credit in bringing Richard Nixon's corruption to light and eventually forcing him from office.
       Reporters detailing Trump's career have helped highlight the low points of his career. It is not "fake news" that Trump and his father were sued for racist rental practices in the 1970s; that Trump imitated his P.R. spokesman in calls to reporters; that Trump has been sued countless times for failing to pay employees or subcontractors. And it is not "fake news" that Trump has been enriching himself and his family as president by spending so much of the government's money at Trump properties or that many of his appointees have equally glaring conflicts of interest.
      Again, it cannot be stressed often enough that Trump has failed to point to specific instances of supposedly false coverage of himself, his family, or his administration. His followers who parrot his unsubstantiated critique are undermining the free press, one of the vital institutions of American democracy. "[A]ll too often," Klaas writes in his book, "Americans take this fundamental freedom for granted."

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