Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2018

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Sun editorial:

Take it from the Founding Fathers: Journalists are Public Ally No. 1

News coverage of President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media tends to focus on how his vitriolic statements could lead to violence against journalists, which is certainly a legitimate threat.

But it’s actually only a sliver of the potential ramifications of Trump’s attacks. In fact, every American could be affected.

In labeling the media as the enemy of the people, Trump is shaking the foundation of our democracy. It’s been done by autocrats the world over, who — after bringing the legislature to heel (as Trump has done with Congress) and gaining control of the judiciary (which Trump is in the process of doing, not only with his court nominees but in politicizing the Justice Department) — attack the media because it’s the only remaining force for a free society.

Without the media serving as a watchdog over those in power and giving citizens the information they need to hold leaders in check, authoritarians have a clear pathway to consolidate power.

That being the case, Trump couldn’t be more incorrect in calling the media the enemy of the people. The media is actually the enemy of dictators and tyrants.

That’s why the Sun today is joining dozens of other newspapers nationwide in denouncing Trump’s assault on the media.

This is not something we ever imagined we’d need to do. Although previous presidents have been critical of the media, they at least publicly have recognized the critical role that a free press plays in democracy.

Trump, on the other hand, has already damaged our society with his vilification of the media, which has helped drive Americans into tribalized media echo chambers and contributed to the rise of fake news sites trading in conspiracy theories.

The outcome is that Americans are no longer just disagreeing over how to interpret facts, they’re disagreeing over what is fact. This is dangerous, because agreement on facts is part of a society’s connective tissue, and for Trump to characterize facts as tribal myths will inevitably tear the nation apart.

It also creates an opportunity for an administration to define what is the truth, and to restrict speech or media that falls outside of that definition.

Trump appears to recognize that, as when he made this statement at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.”

In other words, don’t believe your eyes and ears. Believe only me.

This is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the Bill of Rights. Having been restricted in questioning the British crown and speaking out against tyranny, the founders guaranteed the rights of expression and the freedom of the press in the First Amendment.

So when Trump says journalists “don’t like our country,” or that they’re “trying to take away our history and our heritage,” or that NBC’s broadcast license perhaps should be challenged, it shouldn’t be written off as a mere strategic ploy by Trump to rev up his base. There are far bigger implications.

Then there’s the more direct outcome. Keep in mind, when Trump bashes the media at his rallies, he’s turning Americans against other Americans. At events, it’s become common for crowd members to make obscene gestures at reporters and hurl profanities at them.

That’s sad, because journalists, like the crowd members, are part of our society and our communities. They send their kids to school, pay taxes, go to church and volunteer with community service organizations, just like their neighbors.

And although Trump’s most ardent supporters may refuse to believe it, journalists at the Sun and elsewhere also have a deep commitment to presenting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of stories. Reporters work long hours gathering details, interviewing multiple sources and writing balanced stories, followed by more hours of work by editors to check facts and ensure that stories are fair and complete.

Granted, the Sun has been harshly critical of Trump in our editorials, but we label those as opinion to distinguish them from our news coverage.

For Trump to suggest these professionals are un-American is highly offensive. These are individuals who believe passionately that well-informed citizens are the lifeblood of our democracy and that the media’s role is to provide the information those citizens need. You also won’t find a group that is more committed to protecting First Amendment freedoms and other liberties.

Now, however, Trump’s attacks have left journalists at risk of violence. And according to Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, that threat is imminent.

“We began to see a campaign against the media … that could have potentially, and still can, set in motion a chain of events which could quite easily lead to harm being inflicted on journalists just going about their work and potentially some self-censorship,” he recently told The Guardian. “And in that context, it’s getting very close to incitement to violence.”

It’s not idle conjecture that Trump’s language is dangerous. Newsrooms have seen an increasing likelihood that people critical of their positions or their coverage will veer into outright threats of violence as opposed to simply arguing.

With real Americans in danger of suffering harm, and with farther-reaching damage a possibility, we urge Trump’s supporters to reconsider his attacks and call upon congressional leaders to denounce them.