Newspapers across the United States will editorialize today in defense of freedom of the press. This is a necessary act at a time when Donald Trump’s disdain for the basic premises of the American experiment is on display in his crude attacks on journalists and journalism.
Trump is certainly not the sole cause of the crisis that has befallen American journalism. Newspapers were folding, newsrooms were thinning out, editors and reporters were being laid off at alarming rates long before the 2016 election. Hedge-fund owners were sacrificing local journalism to pad their profits. Mergers and acquisitions were dumbing down print, broadcast, and online media in pursuit of a one-size-fits-all bottom line. Federal policies were promoting consolidation and profiteering, while failing to adequately fund public and community media.
Trump has only made a bad situation worse with his empowerment of a wrecking crew at the Federal Communications Commission and with a steady stream of angry pronouncements regarding specific reporters and media outlets and journalism in general. At a time when the United States needs leadership on behalf of journalism and freedom of the press, Trump is actively steering the discourse in the wrong direction with his claims that “very unpatriotic” journalists are putting “the lives of many” at risk by reporting on government affairs.
In times such as these, it is important that newspapers across the country have chosen to heed the call of The Boston Globe for a show of editorial-page solidarity.
To be clear: There’s no need for feel-good pontificating that merely begs this president to be nice to journalists.
What is required is something far more specific, and far more intellectually and politically honest, than a simple assertion that journalists are not the enemy of the people. There has to be a renewal of the historic understanding of journalism as a check and balance on all power: Republican and Democratic, private and public, political and corporate. This reassertion must be rooted in an essential recognition that no president who takes seriously an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution would say what Trump is saying. But it must go deeper than that.
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association just two months after he was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States, he explained that “I have selected as the title of my remarks tonight ‘The President and the Press.’ Some may suggest that this would be more naturally worded ‘The President Versus the Press.’ But those are not my sentiments tonight.”