“The free press is a cornerstone of democracy.”
Those words are literally carved in stone at the Newseum Institute, a 250,000-square-foot building dedicated to press freedom and reportage, warts and all.
It’s fitting the institute is within sight of Washington’s iconic domed Capitol Building and a few blocks from the White House, home to President Donald Trump.
That irony washed over me during a recent Sunday visit to the institute packed with schoolchildren from across the United States. How do you juxtapose Trump’s visceral disdain for the media and his sworn oath “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which includes the First Amendment guaranteeing, among other things, freedom of the press?
Politicians, especially those in power, and the media have always had a tempestuous relationship.
Another U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, acknowledged that tension, but defended the media’s role.
“It is never pleasant to be reading things frequently that are not agreeable news, but I would say it is an invaluable arm of the presidency as a check really on what is going on in the administration.
“Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Contrast that with President Trump’s Feb. 17, 2017 tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
There’s an unsettling Stalinist, show-trial ring to it. The media isn’t merely misguided, biased, partisan, lazy, or incompetent, but “the enemy…”
What Trump calls ‘fake news’ is information he doesn’t like. It’s not just ironic, but jarring and hypocritical that Trump can shout ‘fake news’ and then brag publicly to making up figures when discussing trade with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The media is not infallible or beyond reproach, but Trump’s assault on the Fourth Estate is an attack on democracy itself.
“It’s frightening, especially in the United States, a very old democracy, where this is really entirely unprecedented, going back to the 1790s perhaps,” Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard professor of government and co-author of How Democracies Die, said in an April 18, interview on CBC Radio’s “The Current.”
Some dismiss Trump’s media attacks and allegations of rigged elections as rhetorical.
“But we make the case in our book that words really do matter because if you look at public opinion among Republicans, attitudes towards the press and attitudes towards elections they’ve transformed in the last two years, precisely as candidate and President Trump have used these words.
“Similarly when someone says the media are the enemy of the people (and) the media are just making up stories… according to Pew (Research Center) surveys… 40 or 50 per cent of Republicans say the media are making up stories about President Trump. If you have large sections of a population of any democracy basically accepting these two key critical pillars of democracy — media and elections are basically illegitimate — it’s hard to imagine sustaining a democracy in that context so that makes us very worried.”
Ziblatt blames political polarization. He says the antidote is a more diverse Republican Party and for the Democrats, as tempting as it is, not to fight fire with fire.
The United States has long led the world by example. What happens here matters. Fortunately not all American politicians, including fellow Republicans such as Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, share Trump’s contempt for the media and facts.
“I am grateful for the work that you do,” Roberts told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists at a meeting on Capitol Hill April 10. “Shine the light of truth into darkness. Sometimes I don’t agree with where your flashlight goes, but keep on shining.”
Roberts, 82, earned a BA in journalism and was reporter and editor for several Arizona newspapers after serving as a captain in the Marine Corp.
“I come from within your ranks ages ago and I’ve got great empathy for what you do,” Roberts said after taking questions on trade and the Farm Bill. “Just keep on doing it.”
Roberts, who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, is also committed to passing a bipartisan Farm Bill. Bipartisan legislation is getting rarer here. But Roberts, and the ranking Democrat and former committee chair Debbie Stabenow, agree agriculture is too important to descend into partisanship.
“We’ve always come together,” Stabenow told reporters. “This is about farmers, ranchers, conservation, sportsmen, bioenergy, nutrition and food. We pass Farm Bills because we address all the issues from farm to family.
“It would be very unfortunate if agriculture somehow became a partisan issue.
“If that tradition somehow is fractured I think that’s very bad… for farmers and ranchers across the country.”
The Newseum cafeteria is so packed, mostly with kids, it takes 20 minutes to reach the cashier to pay for lunch. It’s satisfying to see so many young people learning about the media and democracy.
Many will have read this: “People have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell. Finding facts can be difficult. Reporting can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the duty to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.”