Enemy of the free press

10. He’s afraid of the truth getting out

No president has had an entirely smooth relationship with the press. Reporters ask tough questions. Columnists write witheringly critical op-ed pieces. Television pundits have a habit of pointing out inconsistencies and insufficiencies in any policy initiative. The relationship between the presidencies of John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon and journalists of their respective eras was an especially fraught one, and even thoroughly competent, media-savvy, modern-day presidents such as Barack Obama are often deeply unhappy with the coverage they’re receiving. Unsurprisingly, there has been one modern-day president whose relationship with the press has been consistently dysfunctional from day one. His name rhymes with “frump,” and he’s currently running for reelection.

Exactly how should the press treat a president who had been tabloid fodder for decades before he announced he was running for office? What if he was an arrogant egomaniac, a self-promoting wheeler-dealer with a reputation for high-stakes deals but with a string of failed businesses and bankruptcies in his wake? Suppose he was a demagogue with a history of racist rhetoric and conspiracy-mongering, a reputation as a swindler and a deadbeat who played fast and loose with the truth. It is a fact that no one like that had ever mounted a viable campaign for the presidency before, so it was hard for journalists to know how to cover him. Most journalists gave DT the benefit of the doubt and tried to treat him the way they’d treat any other candidate, president-elect, or newly inaugurated president. But the unprecedented way he acted every step of the way kept them off-balance. Many of the things he said were obviously untrue, but the press (what DT insists upon calling the “mainstream media”) was reluctant to say so plainly, so they couched their coverage in euphemisms and buried the lead—that America had elected a liar—in a fog of trivial details. It’s also true that they provided him a vast amount of uncritical coverage—free advertising, in essence—during his campaign. All in all, it would seem that the press was actually helping him far more than it was hurting him. Was he grateful? Of course not. They didn’t actually fawn all over him, so he hated their guts.

As winter 2017 gave way to spring, it became increasingly clear that the new president was in way over his head. Key positions remained unfilled, turnover among White House staff was already a phenomenon, and DT seemed to have no idea what presidents are supposed to do or how they’re expected to act. Slowly, incrementally, the press became bolder in questioning what was going on and reporting it to the nation. Predictably, this made him hate their guts even more. He took to reflexively retorting “fake news” every time they reported anything substantive about him at all. In press conferences, in speeches, and in tweet after tweet, he attacked them, and his attacks became more extreme. Journalists are “ the enemy of the American people,” he said, “a great danger to our country.” He accused them of disseminating “purposely false and inaccurate reporting.” He suggested revoking the licenses of television “networks” [sic] whose news divisions were covering him negatively. He even went so far as to speak in support of people who assaulted reporters. No legitimate news outlet was spared his displeasure. Eventually, even Fox News, which went out of their way to be downright unctuous in nearly all their coverage of him, became the occasional target of his attacks. Needless to say, he had no qualms about disparaging individual reporters and anchors, especially those who were women.

The situation is better now insofar as the press no longer gives him any benefit of the doubt. They’ve seen firsthand the kind of president and the kind of person he is; they’ve been covering him for years now. As the 2020 election season runs through its final days, the gloves are off. Unfortunately, the meteoric rise and subsequent near-ubiquity of social media, plus the advent of innumerable Internet-based right-wing “news” operations, means that millions of American voters are no longer on the receiving end of comprehensive, fair reporting; instead, they’re holed up in echo chambers, receptive only to what DT and his new-media promoters want them to hear. And that most emphatically does not include the truth: that the man they’ve been revering isn’t a reformer with a few rough edges but rather a dangerous sociopath who doesn’t care if they live or die.

The power of journalism

A free press is one of the most basic components of a free society, in part because it informs the people of threats to their continued freedom. Unsurprisingly, a restricted press is one of the most obvious identifying features of an undemocratic society. Truth is the mortal enemy of authoritarianism, and a free press brings the truth to the people. When an authoritarian leader comes to power, one of their first actions inevitably is to try to muzzle their country’s journalists. All too often they succeed, and there are graves in many countries to attest to the fact.

So far, we’ve been lucky in the U.S., in that violence toward journalists has been relatively rare. It is on the rise, however, and DT has a lot to do with that. The most important thing we can do to ensure that our nation continues to have a free press is to vote him out of office.