Free Press Helps Make America Great

By Edward Fitzpatrick

The First Amendment needs allies.

It needs people like you: Republicans, Democrats and independent Rhode Islanders.

It needs people who aren’t going to buy the self-serving “Fake News” narrative being spun by President Trump. It needs people who aren’t going to applaud when the President of the United States uses his bully pulpit to try to bully the free press.

Unfortunately, President Trump just used the power of his office to issue “Fake News Awards” to media outlets that dare to hold him accountable, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

And unfortunately, a Gallup-Knight Foundation survey just found that 42 percent of Republicans, 26 percent of independents and 17 percent of Democrats believe that “accurate news stories casting a politician or political group in a negative light” always constitute “fake news.”

So “accurate” is now “fake”? As George Orwell might say: YouGottaBeKiddingMe!

Good, solid watchdog journalism will often cast a politician or political group in a negative light. And we shouldn’t allow thin-skinned politicians or political groups to convince us that it’s “fake” simply because it’s not the adulatory pap of state-run media. Don’t buy it. That’s textbook generic nonsense.

New England First Amendment Coalition executive director Justin Silverman said the term “fake news” is now being used to describe news or opinion that people simply dislike.

“It’s used to denigrate the Fourth Estate by distorting honest mistakes and eroding the confidence we have in journalism,” Silverman said. “President Trump, the highest ranking government official in our country, is using it as a tool, a way to convince us — the people — that we don’t deserve the freedoms given to us by the First Amendment.”

“Instead of ‘fake news,’ we should instead be discussing the great, necessary work of journalists throughout the country — whether exposing sexual assaults in Michigan or racial inequities in Rhode Island — that holds those in power accountable,” Silverman said, referring to The Indianapolis Star’s investigation into USA Gymnastics and The Providence Journal series “Race in Rhode Island.”

Now, if a reporter makes an error, that’s a big problem and it needs to be promptly corrected. For example, ABC News’ Brian Ross reported that Trump had directed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (a Rhode Islander) to make contact with Russia’s government during the 2016 presidential campaign. ABC clarified that Trump told Flynn to talk to Russia only after Trump won the election, and it suspended Ross for that “serious error.”

But that swift correction didn’t stop Trump from bestowing one of his top “Fake News Awards” on Ross and blaming him for a plunge in the stock market.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker analyzed Trump’s 11 “Fake News Awards” and concluded that at least seven resulted in corrections; one involved a tweet that was corrected; and one was an opinion piece in which the author later retracted his prediction. “Let’s put it this way: If the president admitted error as frequently, he would earn far fewer Pinocchios,” the Fact Checker wrote.

Blind partisans will never be dissuaded from bellyaching about press bias. But this is not a partisan battle.

Democratic President Obama deserved criticism for prosecuting more leakers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined — and threatening to put former Providence Journal reporter James Risen behind bars for refusing to identify a source.

And now President Trump deserves criticism for his unrelenting attacks on the press. Since taking office, Trump has tweeted about “Fake News” 180 times — surpassing even his 106 tweets containing the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Republicans such as U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake see what’s at stake and deserve credit for standing up for the press amid the Twitter storm.

McCain cited the Committee to Protect Journalists report that found 262 reporters were jailed for their work last year.

“Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s attitude toward such behavior has been inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst,” McCain wrote. “While administration officials often condemn violence against reporters abroad, Trump continues his unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets. This has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.”

Flake noted Trump has launched “an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press” during 2017 and branded major news outlets “the enemy of the people.”

“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake said. “The president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”

Let’s remember that the free press is a big part of what makes America great.

Edward 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 Niclas and used under a CC 2.0 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. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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