The historical, sometimes grudging respect that two centuries of American presidents have paid to the essential constitutional role of the press has been abandoned by President Donald Trump, who has waged an ongoing assault on the Fourth Estate. His relentless attack on the media may well incite violence against journalists, and it is beneath the dignity of the Office of the Presidency.
Since February of 2017, President Trump frequently has denounced the press — at political rallies, meetings and press briefings — as the “enemy of the people,” a historically dark, chilling and menacing characterization, hauntingly reminiscent of its authoritarian roots and usage. His employment of a phrase that dates back to the terrifying violence of the French Revolution and one enthusiastically invoked by Lenin and Stalin as a reference to the physical annihilation of their enemies, is shocking.
President Trump’s use of the characterization has not occurred in a vacuum. He has excoriated the media as “dishonest people” and purveyors of “fake news.” He has encouraged crowds at his political and non-political events to boo and harass journalists, whom he has called out by name. On July 31, audience members at President Trump’s political rally in Tampa chanted “CNN sucks,” and brandished their middle fingers at CNN reporter Jim Acosta. Eric Trump, the president’s son, tweeted out the video of the chant with the hashtag #Truth, and singled out the reporter. President Trump retweeted his son, who has encouraged supporters to direct rage at reporters.
President Trump’s public hostility toward the media has spread alarm across the industry. In late July, Trump met with the NY Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and the editorial page editor, James Bennet. Sulzberger warned Trump that his anti-press rhetoric was “inflammatory,” “harmful and dangerous,” and that it was contributing to the rise of threats against reporters. The Times, Sulzberger added, was concerned about the safety of its staff and had begun posting guards at its offices. He pointed out as well that use of Trump’s language by foreign leaders “was being used to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists,” and that it “was putting lives at risk.” Political commentators have wondered whether, and when, Trump might issue a statement directing his followers to refrain from heckling and abusing journalists.
President Trump’s assertion that the press is “the enemy of the people” has played well with his base, but it surely collides with both the founders’ and two centuries of American presidents’ conception of the role and importance of the press in protecting and advancing American Democracy.
Previous presidents of both parties have engaged in contentious relations with the media. Despite their occasional anger about stories that criticized and perhaps embarrassed them, they nevertheless recognized the critical informing and checking functions performed by the media, functions indispensable to the maintenance of the republic.
Theodore Roosevelt, rarely silent in the face of editorial criticisms of his policies, still embraced the duty of the press to hold government accountable.
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public,” Roosevelt said.
James Madison, at times, was perhaps a little too romantic about the impact of the press, but the Father of the Bill of Rights understood as well as anyone the importance of the Free Press Clause that he drafted.
In 1799, Madison wrote: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Donald Trump can learn a lesson from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and James Madison.
Freedom of the press — “the people’s right to know” — was enshrined in the First Amendment as fulfillment of the republican enterprise on which the founders of the United States had embarked: the right of self-governance.
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Dr. David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance the Constitution, civic education and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and presidential power.