Press Freedom is an American Value

Within a week after his inauguration, President Trump made it clear that he intended to silence legitimate news agencies by labeling them as “fake news.” The first days of his presidency saw the launching of a war of words against the independent press like none we’d ever seen. And while some may cheer at the notion that ‘The Media’ (a perceived monolith) is to be held in check, we must not forget that the free press represents, at its core, the American public and American values. And that checks on power ought not come from above.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” – Thomas Jefferson

One of the primary roles of the news media is to serve as a watchdog on government and other forms of consolidated power. No matter how one feels personally about specific news outlets, reporters, or stories, the healthy functioning of the free press is essential for our democracy. It’s just as Jefferson said, the people must have the ‘newspapers’ as well as the capability to read them – which, in the 21st century, translates to digital and media literacy.
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Before he even took office, then President-Elect Trump said he wanted to kick the press out of the White House. One of his “senior officials” called them “the opposition party.” And we were told that his administration would handpick the reporters who’d get a seat at the table. It hasn’t gotten past anyone, though, that Trump’s senior advisor, Steve Bannon, whom he also intends to have sit on his Security Council, is a former news media guy himself. His skill in this area is matched perhaps only by President Trump.
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It bears asking why these two men, both of them powerful individuals even without their current titles, men who are such accomplished media professionals themselves, would turn their first attentions to delegitimizing the free and independent press, whose job it is to hold their power in check.

Perhaps we need reminding that Trump’s VP also has a strong media background as a former radio broadcaster. One of his most famous blunders as Governor of Indiana was that he once tried to establish his own state-run news agency that would not only serve as a statewide clearinghouse of information for the press but sometimes also break stories – placing Just IN, as it was haplessly named, in direct competition with local news media.

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These men, who now hold some of the most powerful positions in the land – indeed, in the world – cannot be allowed to denigrate the free press. Certainly not from their current positions. Legitimate checks on power come from the bottom up, not the other way around. When you make a deliberate effort to silence those with less power than you, it’s a form of tyranny. And it must not be tolerated.

A new article from CNN’s Alexander Urbelis tells us that “it has become the near-full time responsibility of the media to call out the fictions of the administration.” Presumably because there are so many. He likens current events to the world in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984” – which, incidentally, we are told this week returned to best seller status.

“We are now fighting a battle over who controls the very notion of what is real and fake, true and false. We cannot afford to mince words: President Trump and his staff have used and will use lies and deceit to create a false perception of reality that suits their political agenda.” – Alexander J. Urbelis, How ‘1984’ can decode Trump’s first 100 days

We don’t yet know what the ramifications of Trump’s war on the free press will be, but we must not be blinded to what it means: a war on the press is nothing less than a war on the founding ideals of this country – the notion that facts should be disseminated to an educated public, which then exercises its God-given right to self-governance. The founders saw the press as being so essential that they protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The same Constitution President Trump is sworn to preserve, protect and defend.

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