Editor’s note: The Athens NEWS is participating in a national campaign spearheaded by The Boston Globe to respond forcefully to President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the free press, including his recent characterization of journalists as “real enemies of the people.” We are among 350-plus newspapers across the country (as of Wednesday morning) that are running editorials and columns today, Aug. 16, countering the president’s attacks on the press. Go to the Globe website for links to all the papers writing editorials as part of this project. – Terry Smith, editor
When the president attacks and demonizes the news media, calling them “the real enemy of the American people” and their output “fake news,” please don’t dismiss this as just another in a steady stream of Trump outrages, in the air briefly until his next crazy-angry tweet.
Trump’s long-time campaign to undermine and marginalize journalists, ramped up in recent weeks, appears wholly self-serving on the president’s part. From his point of view, the obvious way to deflect and defuse negative reports is to discredit the reporter and/or the news outlet he or she works for. It’s doubtful that he gives a fig about whether his attacks pose a danger to democracy or transparent government. As with everything else with this president, it’s all about him.
Yet, the consequences of the president continually attacking journalists and the free press easily transcend his personal issues or the daily news cycle. Our democracy is endangered when citizens are persuaded to reject or ignore the professionals who provide news and information, and whose mission is to keep government and other institutions accountable.
Back up and recall the role of independent journalists in a democratic society. You should have learned this in civics class. Journalists – whether working for newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets or websites – are the eyes and ears of a free society. They provide citizens with the intel necessary to make informed, responsible decisions at the ballot box and beyond. They strive to keep their local, state and national governments honest.
In totalitarian regimes, newspapers are closed, journalists are jailed, and the state provides its own version of “news.” Citizens without accurate information are disempowered, weakened, blind. If a man doesn’t know what the weather is like outside, he won’t know how to dress. If a citizen doesn’t know what her government is doing, or what’s going on in the wider world outside state or national borders, she lacks the information to make practical, responsible decisions about important issues, career, money and family.
Fortunately, we don’t live in a totalitarian state. We live in a modern democratic republic (albeit one that’s increasingly dysfunctional). But that doesn’t mean the president’s persistent attacks on the news media are harmless.
If you can make citizens believe that journalists can’t be trusted, that established mainstream media outlets are hopelessly biased, you accomplish the same thing as censorship, arrests, closures. A discredited journalist or news outlet no longer has the authority or ability to inform the public. They may as well be locked away in an underground prison cell.
Likewise, the foundation of the American free press, this absolutely essential pillar of our democracy, crumbles and quakes when the president of the United States succeeds in poisoning the minds of a vast slice of the American public with his relentless attacks on journalists and the verified truths they report.
And it does have a trickle-down effect. Increasingly when a local public figure or candidate responds to a critical news report, rather than an old-fashioned explanation or denial, he or she will go immediately on the attack, calling the reporting “fake news” and suggesting the journalist is an incompetent liar with an ax to grind. In recent years, we’ve also seen political candidates boycott the media, something that was rare until a few years ago. That suggests these candidates (one of them our state senator during his campaign two years ago) have calculated that cutting out local news media that they perceive to be unsympathetic won’t hurt them. That wouldn’t have happened five, 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
This is terribly galling for the hundreds of thousands of journalists who do their jobs far away from the national stage. They work long and hard for not much pay, without many resources. So why do they (we) do it? Many of us, maybe most of us, fell in love with journalism because it’s a pursuit for truth and justice. Good reporting often succeeds in righting wrongs and making things better for people. More than anything, it engages citizens in civic and public affairs, and an actively engaged public is just as vital to our democracy as the free press.
It’s laughable and offensive, this idea that someone would choose a profession where they start out at peanut wages, and eventually climb into a mixed-nut salary range, all so they can serve as somebody’s shill or stooge, becoming a sell-out to sling PR for a political party or ideology.
This isn’t intended as a backhanded slap against the well-rewarded national journalists who draw so much of Trump’s criticism. They are drawn to negative coverage of the president the way a fire department speeds to an actual fire. The reality of a Trump-averse national press didn’t precede the president; it rumbled into action the minute the president started telling lies, hiring corrupt cabinet members, demeaning his own justice department, obstructing efforts to find the truth about his finances and Russian interference, making racist statements, inciting hatred against immigrants, and well, the list just keeps growing.
Ironically, this president, with his mantra of “fake news,” through a willful refusal to counter ongoing Russia efforts to sow discord on social media and interfere in the 2018 elections, is ensuring that Russian-instigated fabricated news reports and social-media posts will contaminate the media milieu right up until Nov. 6. While slinging the “fake news” slam directly at the mainstream media, Trump’s inaction on the counter-intelligence front is ensuring that the real thing – Russian-generated fake news specifically designed to divide Americans and influence the midterm elections – can slip in through the back door.
The journalists at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and most of the cable and main networks are doing immensely important work, every bit as crucial as Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate in the early ’70s. When they get something wrong, everybody knows about it.
When the president calls them, and by extension all of us, “the real enemies of the people,” his goal may simply be to save his own hide. But the damage he does to truth and a free press – essential safeguards of American democracy – will take a long time to repair.
Please don’t let him get away with it.
Continue to be a careful consumer of news. Don’t believe everything you read. Find corroborating reports on stories that intrigue or trouble you. But don’t treat your news like a fan boy with the sports pages, preparing to like anything that’s positive about your team, and dismiss anything that’s negative. You’re a presumably educated adult citizen of the USA, and ought to behave that way.
If you like to root for your team with unalloyed enthusiasm and spirit, you’re in luck – the pro and college football seasons are only weeks away. But transferring that sort of “my team right or wrong” enthusiasm to political parties and President Trump signifies that you’re a poor citizen, a bad American. Encouraged by Trump, your disregard for facts and evidence and rejection of professional news reporting make you ripe for the plucking by opportunistic politicians, propagandist media and foreign agents with bad intentions. Don't be a sucker.