Enemy of the American People? Undermining a Free Press

By Edward Fitzpatrick | Roger Williams University

The Trump Administration appears to be springing more leaks than the Oroville Dam spillway. And that’s a good thing. Otherwise, the public would be drowning in the cascade of “alternative facts” pouring from the White House.

Already, the leaks have produced concrete results. For example, Rhode Island’s own Michael Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser after a deluge of intelligence leaks suggested that he had secretly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington and then tried to cover up the conversations. Also, the White House appears to have backed off from its consideration of reopening overseas “black site” prisons, where the C.I.A. once tortured terrorism suspects, after a leaked draft executive order produced a flood of bipartisan objections.

As a candidate, Trump declared “I love WikiLeaks,” but now that he’s in the Oval Office, he seems to have had a change of heart. After jettisoning Flynn, Trump took to Twitter, claiming that, “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” Yeah, right — and the real story about California’s Oroville Dam is why someone would have reported the massive hole that threatened to unleash a 30-foot wall of water. What matters is the truth. And as Trump’s plumbers attempt to plug leaks in the vast pipeline of governmental information, the public will need to rely on journalists and leakers to learn the undiluted truth.

This is not a partisan issue. The Obama Administration prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, more than all previous presidents combined, repeatedly employing the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting. And that disappointing record came from an administration that had promised to be the most transparent in history. Now, Trump has taken power after branding the media “absolute scum,” castigating any outlet that fails to fawn and spawn Brietbart-brand propaganda. So we must remain vigilant to ensure he does not employ presidential powers simply to try to squelch hard facts and unflattering truths.

As the president denigrates and obfuscates, the nation will absolutely need to rely on the courage and conviction of dogged reporters and patriotic whistleblowers to ensure the free flow of truthful information.

Dipping into the deep, dark well of dictatorial diction, President Trump last week also called the news media “the enemy of the American People.” Even by the standards of a president who just devoted much of a 77-minute press conference to bashing the media, who once openly mocked a disabled reporter and who seems intent on denigrating and delegitimizing any journalist who dares to challenge him, Trump sunk to a new low.

While he clearly sees political gain in denouncing the press and while his critique ignores the vast segments of the media that are content to be lapdogs rather than watchdogs, Trump debases his high office by using the bully pulpit to bully a free press.

Enemies of the American people? Lies and propaganda, perhaps. Ignorance and corruption. Hatred and violence. But not a free press. That’s democracy’s greatest ally — not its enemy.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said, “President Trump’s continued attacks on the media undermine the value of journalism in our country. A reporter’s job isn’t to pat the president on the back, but to instead pursue the truth, regardless of how it reflects on an administration. As the saying goes, democracy dies in darkness. Trump seems intent on discrediting the very people we rely on to shine light in those dark corners of government.”

Silverman said, “Once the public has lost faith in the Fourth Estate, there is nothing to separate fact from fiction, truth from propaganda. Yes, we need to demand high standards and integrity from our press corps. But at the same time, we need to discard hollow accusations of ‘fake news’ and petty grievances with coverage. There’s too much at stake to consider every critical news story as the work of dishonest politically driven reporters.”

Ed Fitzpatrick is director of media and public relations at Roger Williams University and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors. This post originally appeared on the university’s First Amendment blog.

Above photo provided by Flickr user Adam Fagen and used under a CC 2.o license


NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe, Boston University, Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

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