Shooting the messengers: Trump's attacks on free press 'enemies' undermine our democracy
President Donald Trump rails about "fake news" to distract from inconvenient truths, but there is no alternative to a free press: democracies run on facts. Informed citizens are the foundation of our country's success.
Trump has labeled journalists as "enemies of the people" and "totally dishonest." His staff have presented "alternative facts" of their own. His supporters sport T-shirts reading "Rope. Tree. Journalist."
"Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening," the president said told a cheering crowd in June.
Trump and his campaigners want to deny the very existence of objective reality, declaring an Orwellian war on the truth. The only source of information should be from his mouth and his mouthpieces. He wants to avoid public scrutiny of his meandering shifts in policies, of his administration's self-interested dealings, of the impacts of his proposals. If someone isn't poised to pat him on the back and loudly proclaim his virtues, he not only doesn't want to hear them, he wants to shoot the messengers.
As Plutarch wrote of King Tigranes, Trump is "giving ear only to those who flatter him."
The response to any news that is less than fawning is an irresponsible temper tantrum from the most powerful man on Earth.
But cutting off the head of a messenger means "no man dares to bring further information," leaving the ruler "without any intelligence at all."
Trump's taunting should not be normalized. Because it is not normal. It should not be tuned out; his rhetoric is ripped straight from the classic authoritarian playbook. The epithet "enemy of the people" dates to Roman times, but it's been invoked more recently to justify repression in the French Revolution, and especially by brutal Soviet and Nazi dictators.
Now, people are becoming amenable to the president's suggestion that he should have sweeping powers to muzzle those who challenge his statements and seek to hold his administration accountable.
No American should accept this, from any president of any party.
Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, just asserted that facts are "in the eye of the beholder." There has been a concerted effort, at all levels, to mock and undermine responsible journalists, to dismiss the facts and substitute the partisan spin of the day.
What we need to remember is Daniel Patrick Moynihan's admonition that "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."
At TucsonSentinel.com, we're generally content to have our work speak for itself. We know we do solid reporting. And most people in Tucson know that well.
But today, we're joining hundreds of other news organizations across the nation to underscore the important role of our free press. We're defending the civic institution and deep-seated principles to which reporters and editors dedicate their lives.
Some 400 news outlets are publishing individual statements about the importance of journalism in our democracy, at the national and local levels.
Getting accurate, reliable, consistent reporting — news that's well-sourced and understandable, that explains not only what just happened, but what it means to your community and to the families who live there — getting real reporting instead of those "alternative facts," is now more necessary than perhaps ever before.
And today, the important work of our free press, so vital to the functioning of representative democracies, is assailed from all sides, and threatened as we've never seen.
Threatened how, and by what?
President Trump sows distrust at every turn, calling reporters "enemies of the people" and proclaiming any story he doesn't like is "fake news." And plenty of his supporters do the same.
But, while Trump's an easy target, his individual insults and antics are actually far from our most serious problem.
Some of the others include:
The epidemic of actual fake news, whether from Russian bots or social media idiots, coupled with the foolish hype of schlocky, cynical, manipulative partisan bloggers and cable TV commentators from the right and the left.
We could blame the Internet, writ large, where blatantly plagiarized stories often gain broader reach than original journalism; where clickbait garbage crowds out real reporting, with advertising and circulation systems being completely upended; and giants like Facebook and Google sucking up all of the money.
And, certainly not the least of the challenges facing journalism: enormous corporate chains that are far more interested in pulling profits out of hard-pressed newspapers in the short-term than paying reporters to do great work and investing in those communities for the long haul.
Those factors, coupled with Trump's steady drumbeat of scorn for news reporting, mean real reporters are less trusted now than ever.
Readers and viewers must become more media literate, more able to ignore ridiculous memes and over-hyped sensationalism. And the sources of real journalism need to be more ready to stand up for our principles, and more ready to demonstrate why solid reporting is so vital.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of speaking at the national conference of the Local Newspaper Association of Norway. In a small town above the Arctic Circle, I found the concerns of local journalists halfway around the world are much the same as they are in Arizona or Iowa.
I happened to deliver my talk on a Friday the 13th, which was coincidentally the 275th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who keenly understood the key role of good journalism to the functioning of a civil society.
He once wrote, of attempts by politicians to cloud the issues:
"The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them."
As I told the Norwegians, Jefferson would rather have people be informed, than politicians working to hide what they're doing, because he understood that democracy doesn't work if people don't know what's going on.
Jefferson would rather have journalism than government. And he wasn't the only Founding Father so convinced.
"The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom," wrote John Adams.
Much of what I've written appears to be about the national press, but I'm far more concerned about the state of local journalism. And the words of Jefferson and Adams hold true outside the walls of the Capitol building.
Someone will always check what Trump just tweeted early in the morning.
But who will keep track of what's going on in your local government — is the mayor doing his job? Are our members of Congress doing theirs? Why aren't the roads getting fixed? What businesses are opening with public incentives? Are our laws being equitably enforced?
Who's making sure reporters sit through endless City Council meetings?
Who's combing through stacks of proposed laws to find the loopholes?
Who's ensuring that those stories are distributed so everyone can read them?
Increasingly, across the U.S., the answer is: nobody.
Hollywood might make movies about the Washington Post and the New York Times but it's local news that matters to our readers and their families every day.
And without responsible, committed, experienced professional reporters and editors, those stories go untold.
Just here in Tucson alone, there are a couple hundred fewer professional journalists than there were a decade ago, with layoffs at every publication, and a newspaper being shuttered and cuts in TV and radio.
That's not acceptable.
Functioning, effective communities need informed citizens — people who know what's going on in their town, and can play a role in making wise decisions about their futures.
That's why, nine years ago, we founded TucsonSentinel.com, a local nonprofit independent online news organization.
Our motto is "A smarter Tucson is a better Tucson" - and we really believe that.
A free press isn't just a lightweight namby-pamby conceit. It's essential to a democracy, and to a free market. Without independent watchdogs, who's to tell when the government is playing favorites?
At TucsonSentinel.com, we've been yelled at — in public and in private — by just as many Democratic leaders as Republicans. But most local politicians understand the importance of our work, and keep answering our phone calls and sending us information promptly, instead of running away to hide behind rhetorical outbursts.
They may not like a story or two when it's published, but they know we report facts. And facts do not always support a particular point of view.
We read boring thousand-page reports so you don't have to. Sit through dreary 13-hour City Council meetings so you don't have to. Show up where bureaucrats and politicians don't want us to. Dig into columns of data with inscrutable labels because no one else will.
By definition, our free press is not beholden to any government, corporation or interest group. Instead, we represent you, the public, in holding elected officials and civic institutions accountable, and in telling our community's stories fairly, accurately, and with respect.
News organizations are not here to serve the interests of politicians. We serve the public — you, your family, your neighbors.
As a nonprofit, TucsonSentinel.com relies on the support of our readers and local small business owners. I know an informed community is important to you, and that you understand the consequences when watchdogs lose their teeth and are muzzled. We can't make wise decisions as a community without having solid, relevant information. That requires a healthy press — and that requires community leaders who recognize the value we deliver in making everyone in this town a little bit smarter.
The "media" is not a gray blob, or a secret group of anti-American operatives funded by George Soros or the Koch Brothers. We're your neighbors. Journalists come in all stripes — many of us are conservatives, opposed to abortion, regular church-goers, proponents of small government. Others are as liberal as your most left-wing Facebook friend pushing for Medicare for all and decriminalized marijuana. We're Democrats and Republicans; either way, we're damn skeptical of all politicians and will work hard to make sure our leaders are doing their jobs.
Contrary to Trump's claims, there is nothing fake about searching for the truth. There is nothing sick about holding the powerful to account. There's nothing disgusting about shining a light on events. Journalists help determine what is really going on, with sources and documents and our own first-hand experiences. Only those who wish to hide in darkness should consider us "enemies."
We expect fair and rigorous criticism of our work. In fact, we welcome it. Commentary about our work is part of the civic process. But attacking the press as "dangerous" and "enemies" is an assault of our founding principle that democracy relies on an informed citizenry.
We have no intention of quitting. Nor do our colleagues at news organizations across the country, whether in small towns in California or Wisconsin, or on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Together, journalists and public, let's be brave enough to stand up against ignorance and protect not only the right to a free press, but also your right to speak freely, and "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Our only political agenda is to provide the information that helps us all make wise decisions about our future together.
We don't want or need to convince Trump that he's incorrect.
We do need the continuing respect and support of our readers here in Tucson. And those readers need to not just trust us; they need to seek out other credible sources of news: including the "failing" New York Times and the Washington Post. They need to recognize the commentary on Fox and MSNBC, in blogs like Reason and Breitbart and from Democracy Now for what it is: spin that might offer an interesting analysis, but not the whole truth. Don't just read our work: check out the solid reporting from the Star and the Tucson Weekly, the Green Valley News and Arizona Public Media, and listen to interviews by Bill Buckmaster.
Trump is unlikely to change his tune. But we'll continue to let our work speak for itself, every day.
Thank you for standing with us.