As a candidate and since winning the White House, President Trump has consistently railed against journalists. Last week he went one step further, calling the New York Times and four TV networks “the enemy of the people.”
The news media are far from perfect, but Trump’s words are reckless and irresponsible. His use of the term “enemy of the people” echoes some of history’s worst tyrants, including Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong. Unlike those despots, who sought to control the media and murder those who spoke out against them, the Founding Fathers saw the value in a free press. The cornerstone of American democracy is the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press.
Nearly every president has battled the media. Thomas Jefferson criticized the press, but he understood the crucial role newspapers played in civil society. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Jefferson wrote.
The Obama administration threatened to jail a New York Times reporter who refused to divulge the name of a former CIA agent who leaked information about the U.S. military’s nuclear program. But former President Barack Obama also acknowledged the importance of the media. “We live in a democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy,” Obama said.
Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that the inherent tension between the media and the White House is beneficial. Instead, he has routinely attacked, belittled, and tried to delegitimize the media, which his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, called “the opposition party.”
Trump is at war with the truth. He wants fawning coverage that supports phony claims such as the size of his inauguration crowds or his Electoral College victory. Enterprise stories that disclose basic facts are labeled “fake news.” But it is often his administration pushing what it calls “alternative facts.” By making the press the enemy, Trump has managed to further divide the public and distract attention from his administration’s missteps.
The president may not like it, but an important role of the media is to be a government watchdog, not its lapdog. The media are not a monolith. Not all journalists are of the same caliber, but most work hard to report the facts without fear or favor.
Some journalists even risk their lives to report the news. Nearly 50 were killed worldwide last year while covering stories. Since 1992, about two thirds of the 1,250 journalists killed were murdered in retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Washington Post, which distinguished itself with its fearless reporting of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, which led to his resignation. Last week, Post editor Marty Baron made clear how his newspaper views its relationship with Trump: “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”