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A Check on Power – Journalism, free speech helped make America great in the first place

The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!” — Donald J. Trump, president of the United states (Aug. 5, 2018)

“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.” —Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, the main author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States

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For more than two centuries — since the birth of our nation — the press has served as a check on power, informing the American people about corruption and greed, triumphs and tragedies, grave mistakes and misdeeds and even ineptitude and dysfunction inside the halls of government, institutions and businesses.

In 1971, the New York Times and Washington Post battled the U.S. government before the Supreme Court for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, which outlined how four presidents, from Harry Truman, a Democrat, to Lyndon Johnson, also a Democrat, had misled the American people about Vietnam, a war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. service members.

A year later, two young reporters working for the Washington Post uncovered Republican President Richard Nixon’s connection to the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex, a revelation that toppled a president.

In 1998 the press shined a light on Democratic President Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliance with a White House intern and his subsequent lie to the American people as he tried to cover up his disgraceful behavior.

It was also the news media in 1996 that helped expose big tobacco’s lies about the devastating health risks of smoking. The media exposed FEMA’s pathetic response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

And, yes, it was the news media that exposed then-candidate Donald Trump’s hideous treatment of women and his strained relationship with the truth during the 2016 presidential campaign.

All of those stories dominated headlines and television newscasts over the last 50 years, but the groundwork for them was actually laid by our nation’s founding fathers at the dawn of our republic.

A check on power

The visionaries who founded our country — giants like Thomas Jefferson — were all too aware that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so they set up a series of checks and balances to ensure that the power remained with the people. Among the safeguards they enshrined in the Constitution were a three-branch federal government and a free press charged with serving as a watchdog on government and its leaders.

And so, when a government leader — be it a president or a county commissioner — tries to delegitimize the media by hurling false accusations of “fake news” or accusing journalists of being the “enemy of the people,” that government leader is undermining our democracy. It’s the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to one of the pillars that has kept our nation strong for 242 years and smashing away at freedom.

President Trump — a man who trades in “alternative facts” — has taken this tactic to a new level, launching repeated attacks on the media.

Startling poll numbers

And he appears to be enjoying some success. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 51 percent of Republican voters surveyed view the news media as the “enemy of the People.” Among all of those surveyed, 26 percent view the media as the enemy of the people. That’s startling, even if 65 percent of all Americans polled said the media is an important part of democracy.

To be sure, journalists aren’t perfect. We make mistakes daily, although we strive to get it right.

And when we get it wrong, we should be called out — but in specific terms and with the correct facts. Most of us will then try to correct those errors.

Yes, there are some media outlets — big and small, liberal and conservative — that have stretched the bounds of objectivity in the age of Trump. CNN appears intent on tearing President Trump down no matter the issue, while Fox news has taken on the role of being the president’s defender-in-chief. And a New York Times columnist acknowledged during the 2016 presidential election that there were new rules for covering Trump.

But, too often the cries of “fake news” are not spawned by errors of fact. They occur because the subject — often Trump — disagrees with how the information is being presented or because he is not getting the accolades he thinks he deserves. Indeed, our president uses the broad brush stroke of “fake news” to tarnish all news media, undermining the credibility of all journalists. And that’s dangerous for our country, which relies on an informed electorate choosing our nation’s leaders

The media’s job isn’t to stroke anyone’s ego. And it shouldn’t blindly reinforce any political party’s worldview.

Bigger than Trump

The news media’s job is to hold a mirror up to the world, to tell the truth and to put events into context, so that “we, the people” can make wise and informed decisions. The job of the media is to help the people hold their government accountable.

We will be a nation in peril until we, as citizens, come to terms with the fact that alternate facts are dangerous because they warp reality.

Make no mistake, this issue transcends Donald J. Trump and his feud with the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN.

This is quite literally about the future of our republic and the type of nation we will be bequeathing to our children’s children.

If we buy into this falsehood of the news media as “the enemy of the people,” we will be leaving our children and our grandchildren a weakened democracy vulnerable to the whims of tyrants.

And that is the very antithesis of Making America Great again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial, written by the Journal Editorial Board, is part of a national newspaper campaign spearheaded by the Boston Globe and joined by more than 200 newspapers to highlight the dangers of the Trump administration’s assault on the press.

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