‘The True Enemy of the People’

By David Rosen

When President Trump calls the press the “enemy of the people” or the “true enemy of the people” (as he did several days after authorities found the second of two packages containing pipe bombs sent to CNN) he is doing more than disrespecting the press.

He is delegitimizing and demonizing the press, which plays a Constitutionally protected role in American democracy. He is, knowingly I believe, using incendiary language to intimidate the press, rile up his political base and deflect criticism of his presidency. In so doing, he has created a hostile environment, one that threatens to undermine our democracy and endangers the safety of journalists.

The phrase “enemy of the people” may be seen by some as a call to arms. Consider the Congressional candidate who assaulted a reporter who asked him a simple question, the white supremacists who attacked journalists covering their rally, or the Trump supporter who is charged with sending pipe bombs to a dozen vocal critics of the president as well as to CNN.

In a speech on October 24, the president called acts or threats of political violence “an attack on democracy itself.” The next day he posted a tweet that seemed to blame the media for reporting that encourages political violence:

“A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

We can, and should, discuss whether the mainstream media have covered Trump fairly and if they share at least some blame for the deep divisions and lack of civility that exist in America. But we must not lose sight of the main issue, which is the words and conduct of the president.

Trump’s language undermines the long-standing watchdog role of the press as “the fourth estate” and raises serious security concerns for journalists and newsrooms. So far this year, 40 U.S. journalists have been attacked, including several who were covering the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. And a number of journalists have received death threats online, on the air and via email.

Worldwide, 44 journalists have been killed this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Zeid Ra’ad, UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that Trump’s portrayal of the press as the enemy of the American people has “set a standard for oppressive regimes worldwide.” He said the president bears “a heavy responsibility” for the safety of journalists in other countries. 

Those of us who cherish First Amendment free speech and a free press should support the president’s right to speak, even if we loath what he says. But we can, indeed we must, denounce his inflammatory and unfounded statements about the press and political opponents.

Yes, other presidents have shown disrespect for the press and even tried to undermine its work. But to my knowledge, none have called the press “the enemy of the people” or uttered any other inflammatory words that might provoke violence against them.

Phrases like “enemy of the people” have been used throughout history to bolster authoritarian regimes. The Nazis declared Jews to be “the sworn enemy of the German People” and sought to eradicate them. Lenin and Stalin called opponents of the Bolshevik ideology and government “enemies of the nation” and sent dissidents, including clergy and writers, to prisons and labor camps. And we know what the Saudis did to a Washington Post columnist deemed an enemy of the regime.

As NPR’s Scott Simon said in a column titled Calling the Press the Enemy of the People is a Menacing Move: “If the president had called reporters nosy, cranky, contentious, or smart-alecky, many reporters would have laughed and agreed. But calling them — us — enemies of the people is the kind of curse made by tyrants.”

David Rosen is a public relations consultant, former journalist and member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors.

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, The Boston Globe, Boston University and WBUR-Boston.

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