Opinion

Mr. Trump: By demonizing the press, you threaten democracy. Maybe you want that.

Doug Elmets, former Reagan administration official, speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
Doug Elmets, former Reagan administration official, speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016. AP

Dear Mr. President,

Last year I ended my lifelong loyalty to the Republican Party and did all I could to keep you out of the White House. I took a lot of heat for backing your Democratic opponent, but I knew you were not only unqualified to lead our nation, but morally unfit for the job.

Since your election, you have graciously validated my decision by finding new, jaw-dropping ways to disgrace the American presidency virtually every day. But that’s not why I’m writing you now.

My mission here is to call out your despicable dedication to undermining one of the key institutions that “make America great,” the news media.

Your predilection for demonizing journalists and journalism is well-known. You have called reporters liars and “scum” and “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” You accuse them of trafficking in “fake news” and declared them “the enemy of the American people.”

Last week, you really hit it out of the park. Using your favorite communications tool – Twitter – you distributed a video showing yourself tackling and pummeling a figure with the label CNN on his head. Even I was stunned.

President Donald Trump tweeted a fake WWE video where he beats down CNN. He used the hashtags #FraudNewsCNN #FNN, Fake News Network, in his post.

There are people who view your denigration of the Fourth Estate as innocuous blather. After all, many a president before you criticized media coverage of their administrations and noisily aired his gripes. President Richard Nixon placed certain journalists on a secret “enemies list.”

Your “running war with the media,” as you gleefully call it, reflects a more dangerous mindset. While Nixon complained about negative coverage by the press, your actions make it clear you question its very right to exist.

This is no laughing matter. By continually bashing the media as liars and propagators of “fake news,” you are undermining the public’s confidence in the accuracy of all news, creating a blurry landscape where facts become so obfuscated that people no longer know what or whom to believe.

You are not a student of history, but people who are will recognize the goals and perils of your communication strategy. By sowing doubts about legitimate sources of information, you clear a path for your own self-serving, unfiltered narrative about events – and simultaneously hinder the media’s ability to hold you and your administration accountable.

If people lack access to or begin distrusting what conscientious journalists report about their leaders, those leaders may do as they wish, free from any annoying criticism or potential opposition. It’s an old playbook, and you and your buddy Stephen Bannon – who audaciously told the media to “keep its mouth shut” after the election – are deploying it with shameful gusto.

As a candidate, you took advantage of this distrust by using social media to portray yourself as a very, very smart and relatable guy capable of fixing everyone’s problems all by himself. And you bashed mainstream journalists who were telling the real story about The Donald.

Am I saying the press is perfect? Hardly. As a former assistant press secretary under President Ronald Reagan, I had my share of run-ins with reporters whose coverage seemed unjust. And today’s media landscape is littered with questionable reporting from outlets that play fast and loose with the truth and rely on questionable sources.

But the communications chaos of the digital age only underscores the critically important role the press plays in our democracy, as an independent watchdog necessary to scrutinize our government and those who run it. Without it, that government – regardless of which political party is in power – would be free to run amok, leaving only its version of history in its wake.

As George Orwell put it, “Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

That, Mr. President, is a cornerstone of our democracy.

Doug Elmets owns a Sacramento-based public affairs firm, worked in the Reagan White House, and spoke at the Democratic National Convention as a Republican for Hillary. @ElmetsPR

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