The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Michael Burns
Representing the Right 

Leashing the Watchdogs


Translating Trump: Parsing the President's Comments on the Press

Side by Side

In this ongoing segment, Glasgow-based columnists Michael Burns and Alec Carmichael have agreed to square off on issues of national and international significance. Less a debate format than an opportunity to feature in-depth discussion, "Side by Side" will feature structured analysis of current events complete with fact-checking, editorial support and, when necessary, informal arbitration. To suggest a topic for our duo, write to [email protected]

The unofficial backbone of a democratic republic such as ours is a free press. We can all recall the first amendment which states, “congress shall create no law... abridging the freedom... of the press.” The press is the watchdog and gatekeeper of a free society, criticizing and reining in abuses of power. Was President Trump leashing the watchdogs last week when he said that the media was the ‘enemy of the people?’ Or perhaps, the watchdog has rabies.

After Trump’s comments during the controversial press conference and then an even more jarring tweet, The New York Times produced the headline, "Trump Calls News Media Enemy of the American People." In actuality, Trump tweeted, “The fake news media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This is in stark contrast of the NYT’s authoritarian christening of Trump. There is a difference between labeling a select few publications as fake news and issuing a blanket statement that the news media is the enemy of the people. Many of these outlets have complained about the problem of fake news but find it hard to even consider they are when accused.

Trump isn’t alone with his distrust of the media. For forty years, Gallup has been monitoring the nation’s trust of mass media. In 1976, from those polled 72 percent of people said they trust the media. Today, that number has fallen to less than half that at 32 percent. It is not hard to see how the media is perceived as partisan and dishonest, when news is repeatedly framed like the NYT headline or worse when a major outlet like CNN get caught leaking debate questions to Hillary Clinton.

Their current contempt for Trump has them crying wolf with fear of him inducing a totalitarian dictatorship. They equate his criticism of the media with authoritarianism. They say former dictators have used these very words before silencing journalists. CNN or NYT make this comparison but forget to make it when they promote a ban of guns, another constitutional right, which is something dictators also have historically done. Regardless, Trump is the president of a democratic republic and has not taken any actions close to that of a dictator; and certainly nothing violent or suppressive. An authoritarian dictatorship only allows for one political party, the party of the state to exist and all dissenters are jailed or executed. An authoritarian dictatorship has a state-run media without the free market of hundreds of news publications who can write for or against any political force or person they choose. From opinion pieces to news stories on CNN, Newsweek and many others, Trump’s criticism was framed as a threat to the existence of a free press and that is senseless. There is a difference between criticizing the press and suppressing it.

Thinking back to the era of our esteemed President Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Constitution, reveals an equally trivial time between the press and the man who fought hardest to defend it. The Sedition Act passed by Congress in 1798, allowed for the prosecution of journalists who wrote false or vindictive pieces about the President or Congress. Jefferson campaigned against this when he ran for president. After becoming President, he had these words to say about the press, “as for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers” and “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper - truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Needless to say he soon started enforcing the Sedition Act and instructed the New Jersey attorney general to prosecute dissidents. The republic was not lost and Jefferson did not indulge himself by pronouncing himself supreme ruler.

Jefferson defended the freedom of the press until the day he died. His criticisms were given with a fiery tongue but that did not make him a despot. More beloved presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK also had harsh criticisms for the press. History repeats itself. Obama often criticized Fox News and even banned them from certain events over his two term presidency. Woodrow Wilson also distrusted the press. His wariness went as far as not accepting oral questions ever from journalists; at press events, all questions had to be submitted in writing and then reviewed. Skip forward to the present, what would the headlines read if Trump were to enact this policy?

It is easy and unimaginative to find a parallel between a president with whom we disagree and a wicked, murderous dictator who chokes his people of basic rights and liberty. Trump is not an intellectual and does not speak eloquently on most issues. However, harsh rhetoric does not equate to violent actions. His words do carry criticism of substance though he doesn’t communicate them in the expected ivy league manner. He has not suppressed the press and won’t until the day he closes down the doors of CNN, NYT, Politico, etc.; throws them on the streets and jails or executes those who disagree with his administration.

If journalism as we know it wants to keep the respect of being the fourth estate then it must be able to accept criticism at the highest of levels. If it is not open to criticism like a president, FBI or your local police force, then it would have the privilege of joining an elite club with only one other member, who is also immune to criticism in this world, a thought-policing authoritarian dictatorship. It is more helpful for a news agency to admit it frames news in a liberal or conservative way than to claim to be fair and balanced. And if any media outlet willfully exhibits misleading or blatantly false, fake news, it would indeed be acting as an enemy of the people.


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