The latest head-turner was a rare tweet delivered by the President of these United States Friday, Feb. 17, who dropped this nuanced morsel on the American people:
“The FAKE NEWS media … is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
You heard it here, ladies and gentlemen. The free press – a crucial cornerstone of our democracy since the days of the Founding Fathers and an institution generally regarded as a line of defense against totalitarianism – is your foe. Because news outlets such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have the absolute gall to report on the daily actions of our nation’s heads of authority, flattering or not, the leader of the free world used his social media platform to unilaterally condemn the news media as an enemy of the state. Sad!
Look, I know that Mr. Trump has a tendency to go a bit overboard in his daily Twitter ruminations. I mean, who doesn’t wake up at 5:44 a.m. just to craft a tweet insinuating that a Fox News reporter is a “bimbo?”
But when members of the Fourth Estate are painted as treasonous agents of chaos by the leader of a supposedly democratic nation, that’s when things stop being amusing.
The First Amendment of our Constitution prevents the government from interfering with or influencing the dissemination of information by way of the press. A free and open press has always been a pillar of not just American society, but societies across the globe, even when certain nations and regimes have done everything in their power to crush that very freedom.
According to Reporters Without Borders, two journalists and one media assistant have been killed worldwide so far in 2017. As of this writing, 190 journalists are currently imprisoned across the planet. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 1,195 journalists have been killed between 1992 and the first half of 2016, and this figure only accounts for those killed since the CPJ’s founding in 1992.
Most disconcerting of all is Reporters Without Borders’ current “Press Freedom Index,” which ranks countries by their press freedom records and how individual nations respect reporters’ freedom to report without repercussions. Ranking highest on the index is Finland. Ranking lowest at 179th and 180th place respectively are North Korea and Eritrea. The United States? We rank 41st.
Now, are all media publications 100 percent unbiased and free of error? Of course not. You will always find misreporting or ideological slants in a newspaper, television program or website on any given day. And any publication worth its salt will do everything to issue corrections, retractions or clarifications if a previous report is found to be in the wrong by any degree.
But to pillory a media outlet as “fake news” because its reporting – especially if that reporting is found by third parties to be accurate – is potentially embarrassing to those in power is disingenuous at best, and dangerous at its worst.
Not all news can be happy or uplifting. Sometimes the ugly or unfortunate side of the news needs to be printed. There have been times when I have actually been asked by Brooklyn Center city employees or citizens why I couldn’t include happier news instead of stories about crime or government issues. If I could write nothing but positive bylines, that would be great. Sadly, it doesn’t exactly work that way.
Luckily, I’ve never drawn actual rebukes from the city of Brooklyn Center for stories I’ve published in the past, but I’m sure there have been some that they wish wouldn’t make the front page. But it doesn’t mean that those stories aren’t important or serve the interest of my readership. The current controversy regarding the city’s drinking water is a great example, and many residents have reached out to me about their own water troubles after publishing my latest story on the topic. Journalism is a crucial service to the public at large, and that’s why seeing our nation’s leaders so eagerly bury the press is so disconcerting and even scary to me.
I think Sen. John McCain’s (R-Arizona) Feb. 18 response to Trump’s “enemy of the people” tweet said it best:
“When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”
Whether or not the president ever tries or even considers to shutter the press’ independence is anyone’s guess. But when you see the very real persecution of journalists across the world (some of which have indeed occurred in America at one point or another), we need to consider the weight carried in the words of a president that would thoughtlessly be dismissed as mere bloviating.
Despots across history have consolidated their grips on power by, in part, painting the press as poison to the people and diminishing the public’s trust in said institutions. We cannot let this pass, not now, and not ever.
The Fourth Estate is a right, not a privilege. And we need to protect it.
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” – Thomas Jefferson
Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]