The words were powerful, particularly because they came from senators of the president’s party.

“2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake said in a Senate speech on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, fellow Arizonan John McCain wrote in a Washington Post commentary headlined “Mr. President, stop attacking the Press” that former President Ronald Reagan “recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world.”

That spread has reversed in recent years, according to a sobering report released this week from Freedom House, a self-described independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.

“Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom,” the report, “Freedom in the World 2018,” starkly states. “Democracy is in crisis,” it continues. “The values it embodies — particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law — are under assault and in retreat globally.”

Including here at home, according to Freedom House, which put the U.S. on its list of 10 “Countries to Watch 2018” (along with Afghanistan and Iraq, among others).

In America, the report states, the “media and the judiciary — both of which have a long history of independence — face acute pressure from the Trump administration, whose smears threaten to undermine their legitimacy.”

It’s not just Freedom House watching, but people in homes worldwide who are observing the sharp departure in Washington. And according to a new Gallup global poll released this week, they disapprove in record numbers.

Gallup calculates that the median global approval rating of U.S. leadership across 134 countries stands at a new low of 30 percent, a dizzying drop of 18 percentage points since former President Barack Obama’s last year in office. “But more important,” Gallup reported, “is the shift this has created in the global balance of soft power and what that means for U.S. influence abroad. With a stable approval rating of 41 percent, Germany has replaced the U.S. as the top-rated global power in the world. The U.S. is now on nearly even footing with China (31 percent) and barely more popular than Russia (27 percent) — two countries that Trump sees as rivals seeking to ‘challenge American influence, values and wealth.’ ”

This should alarm all Americans, including and especially those espousing the president’s “America First” foreign policy, which will be difficult to achieve if people worldwide put U.S. leadership close to last. Especially since Gallup reports that the perception plunge is deepest among allies. Others will be alienated over Trump’s reported use of a vulgarity to describe Haiti and African nations, which happened after Gallup’s polling.

Instead of self-reflection, the president reflexively exacerbated the perception problem by handing out “Fake News Awards” on Wednesday. CNN “won” with four mentions, followed by the New York Times (two mentions), and ABC, the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek (one mention each).

“Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong,” Flake said in his speech.

And sure enough, according to PolitiFact, corrections or clarifications were issued for every award except one: “Reports of Russian collusion.” (Previously, PolitiFact announced that “Trump’s statement that the ‘Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story’ was its 2017 “Lie of the Year.”)

Trump’s tweet to announce the awards sent readers to a Republican National Committee website, which crashed. The “awards” themselves seemed to thud as well. Perhaps because of the president’s ubiquitous use of “fake news” or some other version of “fake” — at least 404 times since Inauguration Day, according to a CNN analysis.

The repetition may be working, according to another study released on Monday. But like so much in America today, the very definition of a divisive term is amorphous. In fact, among the striking findings from the 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy is that “four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’ ”

The international impact is insidious, too.

“Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy,” McCain wrote. Flake cited instances of autocrats operating in Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar, the Philippines and elsewhere justifying repression by blaming “fake news.”

“This feedback loop is disgraceful,” said Flake, who also spoke about Americans risking “reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and sacrifice.” And both Arizonans acknowledged the global specter of press repression, including a record number of journalists jailed worldwide.

Free societies require a free press. And freedom, said Reagan well before becoming a principled president, “is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation from extinction.”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.