by David Kobrin
On Feb. 17, the president tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
At first, I was astonished. How could any segment of the media be the enemy of the people, even when it disagrees with a sitting president’s positions? An independent press – even an adversarial press, as Sen. John McCain (R) said – is fundamental to preserve individual liberties. It is a basic First Amendment right. Then, a few days later after my emotions had calmed, I realized there could be another way of looking at what the president said. The historical perspective throws a different light on what Donald Trump might have meant by his tweet. Whether the press is the enemy of the people depends on who President Trump means when he says the “people.”
Here are two examples from our nation’s past that illustrate what I mean. In the first half of the nineteenth century, virtually all papers and magazines in our country wrote as if racial slavery was simply the way things are. If people of color are inferior, they implied, then it is natural that those people should be dominated by whites. Because newspapers, north and south, defined the “people” as only those who are white, it’s accurate to say that in that time period the press was the “enemy” of black Americans.
A less well-known example puts American Catholics in the spotlight. There was a time, also in the nineteenth century, when many Protestant Americans were suspicious of Catholicism. They believed Catholicism was un-American. During that time, some periodicals and magazines published accounts of underground tunnels that connected nunneries to priests’ living quarters. This supposedly allowed priests secretly to use nuns for their nightly pleasures. That this charge was totally false did not stop the publication of lurid accounts. We could rightly conclude that for many U.S. publications during this period the “people” were white Protestants. And some of the press were clearly the enemy of American Catholics.
These historical examples suggest that it’s important to know why President Trump chooses certain journalists – all with long-established reputations for checking facts and writing with care, albeit from different perspectives – as enemies of the “people.”
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, and now since the president’s inauguration, the papers and media outlets the president cited have in common a record of piercing, even sometimes hostile, questions of the President and his staff. Furthermore, they most often rely on fact checking, accuracy and multiple sources to substantiate what appears in their publications.
If these publications are the “enemy,” then who, in the president’s mind, are the “people”? The historical perspective suggests that when President Trump says the “people” he means his people; that is, those who support his proposals – and especially his more radical ideas. These are the folks who accept the administration’s statements at face value. They are not interested in fact checking the information, accusations and stories the president tweets. They seem satisfied to live in the world according to President Trump’s accusations without cross checking a variety of sources.
It’s understandable that those who believe in “alternative facts” and accept hyperbolic statements at face value, who appear not to need a reference to real world information to support their world view, would conclude that critical, fact-crunching, often hostile journalists are their “enemy.”
That, I believe (with Sen. McCain), is a challenge to our nation’s heritage of law, rights and reliance on the bedrock of our Constitution.