In 1787, the United States was in a state of self-discovery. As the founding fathers drafted radical new ideas about their young democracy, a need to prevent the government from becoming too powerful remained at the forefront of their minds. And it was in January of that year Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to a friend, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Nine months later, the Bill of Rights would become law, as would the phrase ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.” Now, over 200 years after these words were written, this free press, this essential safeguard against the powerful, this pillar of democracy, is under attack.
In February of 2017 President Donald Trump made the bold claim on Twitter that the “news media is the enemy of the American people.” This proclamation combined with weaponizing phrases like “fake news” to use on some of the nation’s most respected news outlets has solidified Trump as the news media’s primary antagonist. His rhetoric has earned a large following in the public, with 29 percent of Americans believing that the news media is, in fact, their enemy, according to The Boston Globe. That these American citizens are, somehow, un-American.
These dangerous messages come amidst major figures in the Trump administration attempting to convince the country that journalists – other than those in blatant, unflinching support of Trump – are incapable of telling the truth. Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” less than two months after Trump’s inauguration, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently declared on national TV that ‘truth isn’t truth.’ For months, this administration has attempted to muddle the media’s abilities to keep the public informed which are essential to even the most basic democracy. In the eyes of his supporters, Trump has made it so that he can never tell a lie.
What is so alarming about Trump’s apparent disdain for journalists is that he seems to be the first president in American history to lack a basic respect for the fourth estate and the rights of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment. At an event Trump held in July, he informed his audience that, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Trump has delivered such lines, lines which many high school English students will say could have been taken straight from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984, with incredible disregard for the potential future implications of branding a free press as an enemy of freedom.
Trump’s anti-media bombardment has taken root within his own party. The Boston Globe reported that nearly half of Republicans believe the free press is the enemy of the American people, and almost a quarter want to give Trump the power to shut down news outlets like CNN and The New York Times. He has managed to draw the issue of freedom of the press along party lines. But the free press must never be minimized to partisanship, because a free press, after all, is synonymous with the ideals of democracy. Democracy doesn’t work without free press, and a free press cannot work if the citizens it is meant to inform do not trust its legitimacy.
But Trump has not only managed to diminish the value of the institution of journalism as a whole, but he has also stomped heedlessly on the memory of so many of the American heroes in this profession.