Editorial: The Wider Danger in Trump’s Troubling Attacks on Journalism

  • President Trump speaks to members of the media outside the White House as he departs for the Group of Seven summit in Canada on June 8. The president takes issue with the tone of journalists’ questions, not the substance, aides say. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford. Washington Post — Jabin Botsford

Published: 8/15/2018 10:09:27 PM
Modified: 8/16/2018 11:17:07 AM

For many years it has been the general practice here at the Valley News not to respond in kind to critics of our coverage, even when the paper’s motives and good faith are questioned. The working theory is that journalists are not and should not be in the business of getting into public arguments; that we expect public figures to have a thick hide, and it is unbecoming to display a thin skin when they push back; and, most of all, that our coverage rises or falls on its own merits, as determined by the readers we serve, not on the opinion of those whom we cover.

And while the Valley News publishes the work of other news organizations, it does not assist in the planning or preparation of those stories and generally avoids coordinating its efforts in any way with other media outlets, except occasionally in sharing the costs of mounting expensive court challenges. The reasoning is that the public interest is best served when independent news organizations pursue their own priorities, projects and interests, thus providing a wide range of news and opinion.

Today, we depart from these customary stances, albeit reluctantly, to answer The Boston Globe’s call for newspapers across the country to respond to President Donald Trump’s scurrilous attacks on journalists and journalism.

At various times, the president has described journalists as “very dangerous and sick people” who “don’t like our country”; as “the enemy of the people”; and as purveyors of “fake news” who purposely sow “great division and distrust” and “can also cause War.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump frequently called attention to the reporters covering his rallies, eliciting obscenities and taunts directed at them by his supporters. This demagoguery did not end with the election; Trump rally-goers heaped abuse on reporters recently in Florida and Ohio.

Trump is hardly the first president who has attempted to intimidate news organizations when they report developments unfavorable to the administration. But the language he employs is different in quality and quantity, and poses the very real danger that it will incite some troubled soul to an act of appalling violence. Emotions are running high these days, and Trump’s rhetoric fuels that fire not only at home but also abroad, where authoritarian leaders have seized on his “fake news” condemnation to undermine independent journalism in their own countries.

But the danger presented by this onslaught on people who are, after all, just doing their jobs is much greater than the possibility of physical attacks on individual journalists, as disturbing as that is.

It also threatens to subvert a democratic institution that was considered so important in the world of the Founders that they guaranteed its inviolability in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

They understood that powerful institutions and individuals cannot be held accountable without a vigorous free press reporting on and sometimes challenging their actions, as the Globe did in uncovering the sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholic clergy, as The Washington Post did in exposing the neglect of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and as The New York Times and The New Yorker did more recently in shining a light on how influential men in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the media and politics repeatedly used their positions to sexually harass and abuse women.

It is one thing for a president to take issue with a particular story or the coverage provided by a particular news organization, but quite another to indiscriminately tar all journalists as “sick” and “dangerous” people. Broad-brush attacks on whole categories of people, whether they be members of a profession such as jurists or journalists or belong to racial, ethnic or religious minorities, are always ugly and historically have sometimes been the prelude to tragedy on a vast scale.

Moreover, to repeatedly denigrate what journalists produce as “fake news” is just another way of saying there are no longer facts that can be independently verified and that alternate “facts” put out by the White House are just as real.

They are not.

Trump’s rhetoric may be simply an expression of his personal frustration at his inability to control the narrative of his own presidency. But it is also possible that his darker purpose is to delegitimize independent news-gathering entirely on the way to some other form of government. Authoritarians do not seize power in democracies these days. They are granted it by people who no longer have faith in the enduring power of democratic institutions.

And that is where you, readers, come in.

Journalists can do little more than explain the nature of this threat as clearly and urgently as possible. It is up to you to affirm your faith in a free press by words and deeds.

Subscribe to the paper and read it daily with an open mind, and urge your friends and family to do likewise.

Put your advertising dollars to work supporting the vital work that journalists do.

Speak up when politicians or their supporters unfairly attack news organizations.

It’s your country to lose.

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