This post first appeared in the May 11 Wilson Times.
In my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I became accustomed to people complaining about press coverage or the “Mainstream Media,” a phrase popularized by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, as if the media (a plural noun) were one massive news organization promulgating one-sided views of the world. Instead, it was (and mostly still is) a variety of thousands of news outlets in cities and small towns across the country.
Although newspapers have changed drastically with big news corporations and even hedge funds buying up independent newspapers in hopes of making profits by consolidating production, cutting jobs and reducing pay, most smaller papers (about as “mainstream” as you can get) are still largely independent.
So it came as something of a surprise to me to read in a column by Charles Blow of the New York Times cite this statistic: “ last week found that Republicans say 49 to 36 percent “that the news media is the enemy of the people. Every other listed party, gender, education, age and racial group says the media is an important part of democracy.”
This tells me that President Trump’s strategy of crushing the news media, regardless of what the First Amendment says, is succeeding. Trump has attacked the news media and news reporters viciously and repeatedly since he began his presidential campaign in 2015. He calls reporters “the enemy of the people” and gets away with it. He tells his followers that you can’t believe what you read or hear in the news. His followers are so loyal that I have to assume they don’t believe weather reports or details of new laws state legislatures or Congress passes or reports of forest fires or wars. It’s all “fake news” until they read about it in a tweet from their leader.
Trump seems determined to undermine the First Amendment. He wants the public to distrust the news media. He wants to limit the ability of news organizations to report on his administration. He has banned certain reporters and certain organizations from press briefings. He has threatened to launch a federal investigation into “Saturday Night Live” because it has mocked him. He has said he wants to change libel laws to make it easier for political figures to collect damages because of honest errors or disputed facts in news reports.
Trump has succeeded at least this far: A poll last year found that 43 percent of Republicans polled agreed that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” When the president can shut down news outlets, there is no freedom of speech or of the press.
The Founding Fathers had a reason for including a free press in the First Amendment. They knew that the new nation’s future depended upon an informed electorate who would choose wisely based on a diversity of sources. A free press allows anyone to report on what they know or have witnessed.
Freedom of the press is an extension of freedom of speech. Editors and publishers have avoided special protections for the news media, depending instead on every citizen’s right to be informed through public records laws and open meetings laws. Notice that when an authoritarian regime takes power, one of its first moves is to shut down all independent news organizations, thereby limiting the information the public receives to the information the government wants the public to have. This strategy has been used in Bolshevik Russia, in Nazi Germany, in Franco’s Spain, and more recently in Iran, Egypt and other authoritarian countries.
Knowingly or not, Trump is following the playbook of oppressive regimes, and at least some American citizens are following along.
Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at email@example.com.