Our Opinion: Trump's assaults on press are assaults on democracy

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Donald Trump is one of only five presidents in American history who won office despite losing the popular vote. In fact, he lost it by the greatest margin in history. Notwithstanding his dubious claim to a national mandate, the president — either through hubris, ignorance of the responsibilities of his office or a combination of both — has made it a hallmark of his presidency to run roughshod over the sacred traditions, institutions and norms that undergird the machinery of our democracy.

Of these, one of the most sacrosanct is that the American press be able to operate freely and be protected from interference by government. Only in such a context can a properly informed electorate, charged with the responsibility of governing itself, assert its will and act as a check upon the overreach of its chosen leaders. If there were an instruction manual for would-be dictators, despots and tyrants, the eradication of a free press would constitute Chapter One. 

Mr. Trump's behavior has placed the American experiment in democracy in unprecedentedly perilous times, and a free press has become more central to our nation's survival than ever. But the free press has come under attack as never before. 

Clearly, the president understands the power of a free press, or he would not be so bent on undermining it. Before his election, he began laying the groundwork to erode media credibility in part as a defense to what the press continues to uncover about his failures, his corruption and his moral deficiencies. "Fake news" — Mr. Trump's simplistic mantra designed to cast a shadow of disbelief upon any criticism of him or his policies — has gained popularity in large sections of the land, clearing the path for an even more insidious accusation, that the press is the "enemy of the people."

Those hot words pervert the role of the press as honest critic, disseminator of information critical to the exercise of good citizenship and the voice of truth in confronting power. The Founding Fathers enshrined a free press in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights not because they enjoyed reading their morning papers, but because they understood just how critical it was for the government of the people to have an alert watchdog acting in their name. For a leader like Mr. Trump, who has frequently chafed under the constitutional restrictions placed upon his office, nothing would be more desirable than to control the information disseminated in such a way as to ensure his base and those disposed to follow him were never forced to confront inconvenient truths and stubborn facts. 

Mr. Trump, through his ceaseless vilification of the established media is mounting a direct assault not just on the news industry, but on the entire nation. His attitude, sadly and frighteningly, is not that of an American patriot. It is the job of the media to expose the truth, including his presidency, to a nation that desperately needs the tools to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. This is particularly compelling when the president consistently distorts the facts and regularly lies. Compounding matters, the president's primary interaction with the media is through Fox News, which is essentially the public relations wing of the administration. His connection with media members who might actually challenge him comes largely through chaotic scrums at rare press conferences and when he is walking toward a helicopter.

The press is not above reproach. Reporters and editors are human beings, with all their attendant failings — but they revere accuracy and strive mightily to uncover and disseminate the truth. On the occasions when they are wrong, they see it as a professional imperative to publish a correction, not only because it is the right thing to do but because the credibility of journalism depends on being accountable to the readers it serves. The president could use a lesson in the same kind of public accountability.

Justice Hugo Black, who was known for his judicial opinions on the First Amendment, wrote, "The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government." Mr. Trump, using the power of his bully pulpit, is attempting to indirectly impose government censorship by conditioning the news-consuming public to hold the press in contempt and to dismiss the truth as bias. He has demonized journalists and attacked their allegiance to flag and country, going so far as to whip his willing crowds into a frenzy that actually puts reporters at physical risk for simply doing their jobs.

For the sake of a republic already riven with discord, these attacks must be met with appropriate resistance at every opportunity. The press is not the "enemy of the people." The press isn't even the enemy of Mr. Trump, much as he encourages his followers to believe it is. The press is the enemy of darkness, corruption, opaqueness in the performance of public service and any other malign influence that would seek to block the unfettered transmission of information upon which the viability of this nation depends.

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The New York Times has compiled a list of many newspapers whose editorials speak out in support of a free press.


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