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A free press is vital to the people, not the enemy

August 11, 2018

Recently, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to declare “the Fake News” as the “Enemy of the People.”

As tweets go, this was about as Orwellian and autocratic as it gets.

Sure, fake news is dangerous to public opinion, but as is so often the case with this president, the rhetorical lines are intentionally blurred. What’s real is decried as fake. What’s fake — inauguration crowd sizes, the underpinnings of the birther movement, the veracity of Russian President Vladimir Putin — is pumped up as real.

And the fake press, which is the real press, is torn down in the process. Its coverage of the White House, the question of Russian connections to the Trump campaign, the Mueller investigation are suddenly dismissed as inconvenient falsehoods, rather than uncomfortable journalistic truths.

It’s a dangerous rhetorical game the president is playing. In a narrow sense, his words could seep into the collective mindset. The concern here is his rhetoric will incite violence against journalists, the “enemy of the people.”

To be clear: He has not called for that. But that doesn’t mean that’s not what someone will hear. This is, after all, the era of troubled young men with guns.

Just a few weeks ago, Express-News metro columnist Brian Chasnoff was accosted with Trumpian language about the press at a Bexar County Republican Party meeting.

“Total fake news,” Mark Metzger, a precinct chair, said to Chasnoff, who was on hand to cover a very real scandal swirling around Bexar County Republican Chair Cynthia Brehm. “The whole paper. You’re a failing organization. Anybody with two brain cells hates you guys. You uber-left, sick, pukes, communist, socialist bastards. Go away. It’s starting to smell around here. You’re the degradation of this nation.”

Metzger later apologized, but words do matter.

Trump has referred to journalists as “very unpatriotic” and “horrible, horrendous people.” His 2020 campaign manager, San Antonio’s very own Brad Parscale, recently tweeted that journalists don’t inform, they “brainwash.”

“The mainstream media treats people with infinite condescension,” he wrote.

And his followers on Twitter cheered.

Of course, Parscale, like his boss, has no problem sharing columns or stories from the very press he disdains, but only if that content advances his message or worldview. Maybe that makes him no different from most other political operatives, but other operatives have never worked for a president with such autocratic tendencies or open hostility to the press. Look no further than those videos from Trump rallies of people flipping the bird to journalists.

Brainwashing? Most reporting is a tedious slog. Journalists sit through long, boring public meetings so you don’t have to. They sift through mind-numbing records and haggle with PR people and officials about word choices. They listen to developers drone on and on about their projects, and then listen to neighborhood association presidents worry about those projects. They chase down tips that almost never turn out to be accurate.

Enemy of the people? They do this because journalism can change the world in good and honest ways. Because the job is rewarding. Because it’s important to ask powerful people pointed questions. Because it’s a chance to witness history in real time and engage in public affairs and democracy in meaningful ways. Because it’s an honor to be entrusted with someone’s story.

Journalism is a business, and it has plenty of imperfections. But it’s not the enemy of the people. Just the opposite because it’s anchored in the pursuit of truth.

There is a broader concern about declaring the press as the “enemy of the people” that goes beyond the prospect of inciting violence. That in an environment where traditional media are struggling, where conspiracy theorists can create websites that masquerade as “news,” where it’s difficult to distinguish between real and fake people online, where disdain for the media is fueled by the president and his followers, we will descend into a hellish digital landscape where journalistic truth is washed out in a sea of misinformation.

In this cacophonous world there will be no agreement of facts, and, in turn, no foundation for discourse or dialogue. Those who benefit from less press coverage will exploit this absence of fact, and what follows won’t remotely serve the people.

jbrodesky@express-news.net

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