Only Tyrants Fear a Free Press

Every despot in modern history has made destruction of the free press his highest priority. Nothing poses a greater threat to dictators than the truth.

President Trump’s relentless assault on independent journalism has no precedent in American politics. Critical reporting about his administration, he declares, is “fake news.” Echoing Joseph Stalin, Trump calls journalists covering the White House “the enemy of the people.”

Trump planned to celebrate his disdain for the truth with his bogus “fake news awards,” but that stunt was postponed at least twice and may never happen given the pushback he’s getting from GOP lawmakers.

“While administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets,” wrote Republican Sen. John McCain in the Washington Post. “This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit.”

I was reminded of just how fragile our democracy is after I saw “The Post” Sunday. This timely film tells the story of how presidents and government officials lied to the American people about the Vietnam War as revealed in the top secret Pentagon Papers.

At great risk, the Washington Post defied the government and published the papers, the Post’s management deciding the people had the right to know why the war was being prosecuted when officials knew it couldn’t be won.

Not long after the Pentagon Papers were published, two intrepid reporters working the Post’s metro desk uncovered one of the 20th Century’s most explosive stories after a botched burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Building. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “followed the money” and it led them straight to President Richard Nixon.

The Pentagon Papers and Watergate taught us an important lesson: critical journalism safeguards our democracy.

I have always admired the men and women who made journalism their calling. The money often isn’t great but that’s not why they do it. There is profound satisfaction when you break the big story; when smug fat cats who thought they were invincible see their wrongdoing exposed to the world.

“Beneath the madness and the lies of The Year of Trump there remains a constant drumbeat, unyielding and determined,” wrote Clive Irving in The Daily Beast. “It broke cover on January 22, 2017 when Kellyanne Conway introduced the term ‘alternative facts.’”

Facts are facts. There’s no such thing as “alternative facts.”

Trump incessantly whines about how unfairly he’s treated by the media, as if he is the only president in U.S. history whose personality and administration have been scrutinized or whose policies and decisions are questioned.

“When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) Wednesday. “Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful. In fact, we question the powerful most ardently. To do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship…(W)e know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.”

During his eight years in office, President Obama was constantly and often dishonestly attacked by the media but he rarely complained. As a constitutional law expert, Obama understood the First Amendment empowers the people and the press to say whatever they wish about the president.

Trump thinks he should be the exception, believing libel laws ought to curb reporting he doesn’t like. He again demonstrates his staggering ignorance of our Constitution and the fundamental freedoms it guarantees.

In the Supreme Court’s landmark Sullivan vs. New York Times, the justices held that the First Amendment protected the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when the statements are made with actual malice, which is very difficult to prove.

If Trump wanted to go down the libel road and sue the New York Times, as he has threatened, Times’ lawyers would depose him under oath and the last thing the president wants is to be compelled to tell the truth.

It’s taken only one year for Trump’s anti-democratic antics to wear thin. A recent poll of Georgia voters found nearly 60 percent disapprove of how the president is handling his job, this in a conservative state that Trump won by five percentage points.

Likewise, most Americans recognize what Trump is up to. A Quinnipiac University National Poll last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe Trump is not level-headed and 57 percent say he is not fit to be president.

Much of Trump’s unpopularity can be traced to the critical reporting of hard-working journalists committed to revealing the truth about this president and the people around him.

Kevin Foley