Last Friday, President Trump tweeted that the nation’s news media is “The enemy of the American People.” In particular, he attacked the New York Times, NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN, the titans of the American news media, for what he called “Fake News.” One day earlier, during a rambling news conference he used the term “fake news” seven times in reference to the press. These are ominous public pronouncements from the leader of the free world.
If we learned anything in the last century, particularly the experience of World War II, it is that attacking the freedom of the press and restraining it is a road to certain destruction. There are plenty of historical sources who have recorded this fact. Yet the president has embarked down this path on the pretense that he, and not major American news media outlets, speaks the truth. The evidence, however, is to the contrary.
In a running tally kept by the Toronto Star, Trump is reported to have made 80 false claims in the first month of his presidency. Indeed, according to Politifact, a Pulitizer Prize winning media organization, only 25 percent of what Trump says is essentially true. In what reads like a stunning indictment, the New Yorker set out over 50 serious legal, political or ethical transgressions Trump has committed in the first month of his administration, many entailing the problem of disputing facts or outright denial of them. As The Atlantic recently pointed out, the issue boils down to facts and Trump’s attachment to reality. The challenge Trump is posing is that by attacking the news media as an unwelcomed deceptive messenger he is obliterating the line between truth and falsehood.
Winston Churchill once said that those who remain silent in the days before a government decision is made, surrender their right to criticize the decision afterwards. This view makes sense. There are too many armchair critics who complain about government policies after they have been made, but who fail to make their disagreement known before the fact. In the case of Trump’s comments, Churchill’s admonition is even more important because the consequences of silence in the face of an attack on the media and through it, indirectly on truth and reality, can be severe.
If, as President Trump maintains, the media is “The enemy of the American people,” and it is responsible for “fake news,” could we be very far from the first arrests of journalists and the eventual shut down of dissent in the country? These are not just words and this is not just theory. As the Huffington Post has pointed out, there is a resemblance to what is happening in America today to the treatment of the press in pre-World War II Germany. While America is a strong democracy with many checks and balances, even America’s constitutional safeguards may not be able to withstand this kind of attack on the media and indirectly on truth itself.
Let us all acknowledge the truth when it is reported, no matter from what source. But let us also condemn those who would seek to impair news coverage in the name of accuracy and the truth. There is no better guarantee of our liberty than a free and vibrant media.
It is worthy of a fight – in Congress, in the courts and in state legislatures.
Winston Churchill said it best:
“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”