‘Enemy of the people’?
When President Trump tweets in a late night rage that American journalists are the “enemy of the American people,” that they are “sick and dangerous,” what does he mean, and what is his intent?
Does he truly think journalists are trying to overthrow the government? Does he think that by pointing out the thousands of lies, untruths and misstatements he has made since he has taken office (now averaging over seven per day), that correcting the record undermines American democracy? Does he really think that journalists who report how his administration has tried to gut the provisions enacted under Obamacare are “dangerous” to their fellow countrymen? Does anyone believe that exposing his connections to Russia, and their proven nefarious involvement in the 2016 presidential election, is damaging to American democracy?
No, he’s not that delusional. He knows when journalists expose those truths, his power as president is threatened, and that if he has committed crimes against the country, further investigation and reporting could cause his downfall.
From Trump’s perspective it makes sense to attack American journalists and the press in general. The first rule of any dictator is to discredit outside information and control the message, and to control what the public deems to be “the truth.”
Hence, Trump’s campaign to declare factual news as “fake” and fake news — from “Fox and Friends” and other Trump-friendly outlets — as fact, is true to form.
The idea is not new, even in the United States. American presidents always try to shape the message the media reports to favor their agenda. But Trump has taken that tactic in a dangerous direction. Dangerous to the nation’s democracy because his intent is to undermine the very notion of reliable and trustworthy news from an independent press, and dangerous to journalists themselves because he is inciting his supporters to take out their anger against those journalists.
On the campaign trail he incited supporters to beat up opposing hecklers, to lock up his opponents, to revile the “fake news” reports of journalists reporting the facts and to consider those reporters as “unpatriotic,” as anti-American. He has singled out reporters by name, labeled our nation’s most trusted newspapers — like The New York Times and Washington Post — as particularly bad, and has slandered CNN and its reporters time after time as they have taken the president and his team to task. But Trump takes it another giant step further by equating his opponents (be that Hillary Clinton, fired FBI Director James Comey, special prosecutor Robert Mueller or the press) not just as foes to be defeated, but as evil to be rooted out so he can deliver his political promises, aka, salvation. It’s an appeal that is most effective for those “true believers,” why his support is likened to cult worship, and why that approach is so dangerous to journalists.
While those tactics have not stopped the press from doing its job, they are having an effect on the perceived freedom and democracy we have long cherished.
“The President’s hostility towards the press is trickling down to states and communities, where officials are refusing interviews, denigrating the press, and obstructing access to information,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked President Trump as the number one world leader who has most “undermined global press freedoms.”
“It’s staggering to see the extent to which some world leaders are so fearful of their critics and the truth,” Radsch said. “At a time when the number of journalists in prison globally is at a record high, the failure of President Donald Trump and other leaders to stand up for press freedom risks weakening democracy and human rights.”
For perspective, in 2018 the U.S. ranked 45th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, down from 20th in 2010, and now behind most developed, democratic countries.
In Vermont, we’re fortunate that community and state leaders have not followed Trump’s lead. For the most part, Vermonters have embraced truth and transparency as the forces that strengthen our democracy. Nevertheless, we join newspapers around the country this week — in an effort launched by the Boston Globe — to highlight Trump’s alarming tactic to target journalists as the enemy of the people, just as he targets truth as the enemy to his cause.
At this newspaper, we appreciate the public’s support and dedicate our mission to supporting our communities, state and nation by reporting on the news as factually as possible, and consistently pushing for transparency and openness in government.
Democracy is best strengthened when “the people” have full access to factual information and are free to determine the truth, not when a few leaders in power make it their political goal to convince supporters that lies are facts, untruths are true — and reporters who tell the truth are the evil to defeat.
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