Constant attacks on free press transcend partisanship, threaten American values

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Reflections from my Notebook

The Boston Globe is coordinating editorial responses this week by newspapers across the United States to respond on their opinion pages to President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the news media. I hadn’t intended to participate since my recent column after the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis summed up my feelings on this subject, but the new call to action did stir more thoughts on this important issue.

Some newspapers shy away from publishing critical views of the president because it could be seen as taking political sides. Trump is a Republican, after all, and he carried most precincts in our area during the 2016 election.

Some of Trump’s actions would seem typical for any Republican president. His Supreme Court nominees aren’t unusual as they are seen as conservatives who have the support of most Republicans. His tax cuts were something any number of Republican presidents might advocate. Trump is intent on cutting regulations, something many Republicans favor. All these issues can be subjects of reasonable debate, with partisan differences, as can the role of the judiciary, immigration, law enforcement and media biases.

However, some of his actions aren’t typical of any party — or anyone who is tasked with leading the free world. His pointed criticisms of the justice system and attacks on individual judges, his debasement of minorities and immigrants, even legal ones who come from countries he needs an expletive to describe, his undermining of the credibility of the FBI, which happens to be investigating his campaign, and his attacks on the media, which he calls the enemy of the American people, are worrisome, transcending partisanship. They could rightly be described as un-American.

Although I have a special interest in the status of the media, our readers should as well. A strong press, protected by the First Amendment, keeps people informed about the important issues the country faces as well as the institutions and people who make decisions.

Trump’s constant references to fake news — more than 400 times in some type of variation since he took office — may seem harmless. His rhetoric that includes calling journalists “dangerous and sick,” may seem just for show.

However, words have consequences.

His words embolden people at his political rallies to threaten the news people covering the events. They allow others to copy his “fake news” claim when unfavorable coverage appears. Even more concerning, people are becoming more agreeable to his view that he should have broad power to quiet those who challenge him.

A recent poll found 79 percent of self-identified Republicans said they believe the mainstream media treats Trump unfairly. That view is perfectly OK and, perhaps, not surprising, even for people who oppose Trump, as the media is far from perfect.

However, the same poll found 48 percent of Republicans agreed with Trump that the news media is the “enemy of the American people” while just 28 percent disagreed, showing his words are making an impact since that phrase was never used to describe the media previously.

The shocker, though, is that 43 percent of those Republicans believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets that engaged in bad behavior.” Only 36 percent disagreed with the statement.

Giving the president authority to shut down news organizations that supposedly behave badly — or, in other words, dare to criticize the president — is just plain un-American, something that is the purview of dictators, such as Russia’s Stalin, Germany’s Hitler and modern leaders in Syria, the Philippines, North Korea and other countries.

For those who may shrug and ask why they should care about the media, it’s not too far of a stretch to see this view trickle down to individuals.

Trump already bullies those who disagree with him. Some would say his “lock her up” chant is more about Hillary Clinton opposing him than it is about her misdeeds.

Trump has stated that NFL players who kneel for the national anthem should lose their job and even infers they shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the United States.

These words are also making an impact on people throughout the country. A friend who complained to me about a column our newspaper ran on the kneeling controversy couldn’t understand why we published a piece from someone who advocated breaking the law.

I politely explained to him that while the issue of respect for our flag is important, there is no law requiring people to stand for the national anthem. At the end of our conversation, he was still convinced that kneeling for the national anthem is an illegal act.

There is no poll on whether it should be illegal, but it would be interesting to know how many agree. More importantly, it would be interesting to know how many people feel that dissidents and activists should be shut down, or locked up, if they exhibit what Trump would consider bad behavior — disrespecting the country’s symbols, which includes the president.

Trump supporters may feel this call to action by the Globe is merely a political ruse — an excuse for the media and individual liberals to continue to take unfair shots at the president. However, it is important to remember that America is founded on principles that protect all people — not just those in power.

For those who feel OK with the undermining of free speech to protect President Trump, imagine that the resistance against the president succeeds and a charismatic, non-mainstream leftist becomes our leader. That individual could use his or her own tactics to undermine the media.

That may not be as surprising as some people think because some leftists also lack tolerance for unpopular speech, as has been exhibited on some college campuses and in some supposedly progressive organizations. Media critical of the new leader and dissidents on the right could be the targets of a new administration.

If that happened, I would be writing the same column because this isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an American issue.

“When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press,” Republican Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain said to “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd last year. “And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

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