Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …
It’s all right there in the first 26 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the foundation upon which this democracy is built. When President Trump declared the media the “enemy of the American people,” he took on an institution that has been part of the fabric of this country since before its birth.
Trump wants to hold journalists to some kind of test, as if they needed his stamp of approval. But that’s never been true in this country. The press of the 1770s was not a well-mannered one, nor even particularly objective. Members considered themselves rabble-rousers, truth-tellers. They helped foment the revolution. From Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” on down, the press has been a pain in the side of the powerful.
It is so because the nation’s founders knew the “Fourth Estate” would function as an unelected companion to the three official branches of government, performing a valuable, if often unpleasant, watchdog role, and that to do so, it needed to be robustly, aggravatingly free. That doesn’t mean government hasn’t occasionally tried to muzzle the media. A Minnesota gag rule from the 1920s produced the landmark Near vs. Minnesota ruling that suppression of objectionable publications or broadcasts violated the Constitution.
We could fill volumes with important stories American journalists produce every day — sometimes at risk to life and career — to inform communities and hold government and other powerful entities accountable. Because they are protected by the U.S. Constitution, journalists here are safer than in countries where dissident journalists are jailed or worse. That must not change.
Trump is not the first president to come after journalists. Richard Nixon kept an actual enemies list that included many journalists. But he never publicly declared them enemies of the people. And words matter, especially given Trump’s propensity for rousing supporters to frenzied, even violent action during the campaign. Threats to some groups have risen markedly in recent months, and that includes news organizations.
As imperfect as the media is, the alternative to a free press is one in which the government is the sole purveyor of information/propaganda — a tactic that has served dictators well in the past. Lying becomes infinitely easier when there is no one left to challenge the lies. The Trump administration’s attack on unnamed sources is another well-worn tactic to severely narrow the flow of information and limit the ways in which a constitutionally protected press can hold those in power accountable. Don’t fall for it.
As Trump is learning, the U.S. media needs no permission to do its job. Chris Wallace, veteran journalist, “Fox News Sunday” host and son of legendary newsman Mike Wallace, showed his teeth when he put Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in his place: “You don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince. You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did. Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but I gotta say, he never said we were an enemy of the people.”
Another Fox News anchor, Shep Smith, incensed at Trump’s characterization of journalists as “fools” for following up on Russian hacking, said during a broadcast, “No, sir, we’re not fools for asking the questions, and we demand to know the answer to this question. You owe this to the American people.”
And that’s just it. Reporters don’t ask these questions for themselves. They ask on behalf of an American public that has refused to subsist on a steady diet of “government-approved” news.
Whether it’s in Washington, overseas or here at home, journalists work hard at getting beyond the official version to the deeper truths officials don’t always want you to see. A global network of reporters collaborated to produce the Panama Papers, groundbreaking stories on how the rich here and abroad use secret offshore tax havens. A New York Times photo essay bore witness to dozens of killings on the streets of Manila as part of a brutal government crackdown on drugs. Just recently Star Tribune reporters have uncovered failing child protection agencies, the inhumane misuse of solitary confinement in prisons, and the flagrant favors dispensed at U.S. Bank Stadium, leading to resignations of two top officials. The Editorial Board does its part with independently researched editorials that provoke debate and challenge leaders to do better, as well as by publishing commentaries and letters to the editor that reflect a broad range of thought.
Here’s a secret: Good journalists do have one genuine bias — toward the story that sheds light, pulls back a curtain and gives people the tools to understand what’s being done to and ostensibly for them. The powerful have never liked being watched, and they will do whatever they can to avoid scrutiny. The founders of this country knew that. Americans now can ill afford to forget it.