No American president, or any city council member, for that matter, has ever unreservedly delighted in the way he or she was presented in the press. “I so appreciate the accuracy of their reporting on my perceived flaws!” said no official ever. “And good for them for holding me accountable.”
But President Donald Trump has veered into unfamiliar and perilous territory with his unceasing all-out assault on the free press and the First Amendment. Of course, the irony of Trump’s attacks on the “SICK!” and “very dishonest people” in “the fake media” he accuses of purveying, yes, “fake news” is that he himself is a product of the New York tabloids. He’s as savvy about manipulating his coverage as he is adept in undermining it.
But today the consequences of the president’s perpetual battle against journalists extend far beyond the Manhattan gossip pages. And the animus you see directed at CNN’s Jim Acosta isn’t just reserved for the White House press corps. Everywhere in the country, any matter that an official doesn’t want to talk about or that a reader doesn’t want to hear about is “fake news” now.
In our business, we know how much words matter. We know, too, that Trump’s references to us as the “enemy of the American People” are no less dangerous because they happen to be strategic. That is what Nazis called Jews. It’s how Joseph Stalin’s critics were marked for execution.
Every reporter who has ever covered a Trump rally knows the scratch of a threat that’s conveyed during that ritual moment when he aims the attention of the crowd to reporters, many of whom no longer stand in the press pen in the back for that reason.
And as real as the threat of physical violence is, especially after the murder of our colleagues in Annapolis, Maryland, Trump’s aggressive posture toward the First Amendment worries us even more.
That’s why nearly all of McClatchy’s 30 daily newspapers, which almost never speak with one voice, are doing so now. That’s why we’re joining with fellow journalists across the country in calling for an end to the president’s war of words against our free press.
It’s an affront to the U.S. Constitution when President Trump threatens to eliminate the First Amendment protections the Supreme Court has built into our nation’s libel laws — or when he suggests revoking the FCC licenses of broadcast news organizations whose reporting he doesn’t like.
The White House’s besmirching of journalists who are doing their jobs is dangerous to the public as well as to the press. It’s not just that we dislike being called “fake news.” That misnomer discredits facts and creates what Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts,” making reasoned and informed debate basically impossible.
We all — as citizens — have a stake in this fight, and the battle lines seem pretty clear. If one first comes successfully for the press as an “enemy of the American People,” what stops someone for coming next for your friends? Your family? Or you?
Not even President Richard Nixon, whose original “enemies list” of the 20 private citizens he hoped to use his public office to “screw” included three journalists, tried to incite violence against reporters. While stewing privately about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “enemies … trying to stick the knife right in our groin,” not even Nixon tagged the lot of us, Soviet-style, as “enemies of the people.” Nor did even he dare to take on the idea that our free press is worth protecting.
Donald Trump swore on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible to uphold the Constitution. And the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” implies that no branch of government will do so.
That 44 percent of Republicans polled recently said Trump should have the autocrat’s power to shut down news outlets shows how successful his efforts have already been.
Like Nixon, Trump still pines for the kind of coverage his behavior makes impossible. But his place in history will be far less mixed than Nixon’s if he continues to menace James Madison’s best work.