Skip this article if you’re like me and already value the key role the media plays in American democracy. After all, my opinion is nothing outrageous. It used to be established public opinion. It’s also nothing new. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Virginia statesman Edward Carrington, “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” As the years passed, Jefferson certainly had issues with the press but, ultimately, he maintained his belief in the importance of a free media.
Yet, here we are 230+ years later in a time when our president tells us that our nation’s journalists, who earn low salaries and work long hours to provide us facts about our world, are “the enemy of the American People.” President Trump tell us that the news media are “others” that need to be scorned, just like he tells us immigrants, religious minorities, and members of other groups should be feared and disparaged. But I beg to differ with the president. From my perspective, they are my friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens performing a challenging task that is necessary for any country that is a real democracy.
While we don’t always agree with our friends, family, and neighbors, we should value what they have to say—especially if they speak truth to power. Because if we don’t have a real democracy that respects the important role of journalists, we would become:
- Russia, where major news outlets are controlled by President Putin and where well-known investigative journalists are often killed (58 since Putin took power) or imprisoned because they try to speak the truth about a repressive regime. Learn more. And more.
- China, where cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists are jailed or physically attacked for reporting on issues of basic public concern such as pollution, the state’s response to natural disasters, and human rights. Learn more.
- Saudi Arabia, where a journalist was recently jailed for five years for “insulting the royal court,” and where there are very strict rules about what can be reported in the news. Learn more. (Since the publication of this article, Saudi agents murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.)
- Turkey and Egypt, where a combined 93 journalists were jailed in 2017 because they tried to do their jobs and give the public the facts. Learn more (Turkey). Learn more (Egypt).
But President Trump keeps trying to demonize our nation’s journalists because they report unwelcome—but true—information that informed citizens (and voters) need to know. His attempts at media repression and demonization are eerily similar to the actions of the countries discussed earlier, which, not coincidentally, are all dictatorships of some flavor. If I have to spell it out: weak media = loss of human rights, no freedom of speech, and an increasing trend toward totalitarianism. It’s no coincidence that Reporters Without Borders ranks Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland—all countries with strong democratic traditions—as having the most press freedoms in the world. The countries that rank in the bottom five—North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Syria, and China—are dictatorships or near-dictatorships. By the way, the United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries.
If we didn’t have journalists, who would tell us about:
- Government corruption
- Problems with our drinking water and other environmental issues
- Criminal and unethical behavior by our political candidates
- Abuses of the public by members of law enforcement
- Corporate corruption
- Any issue that affects the American people.
Reporters provide this important information to us despite working in an industry that is constantly contracting and that does not pay a high wage. A large percentage of the public seems to believe that the media is part of the wealthiest 1 percent, but this is so far from the truth that I would call that “fake news.” In 2017, reporters and correspondents earned median annual salaries of $39,370—lower than the median salary ($45,552) for all American workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
President Trump recently tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Please don’t take his word for it. Have you read or watched any of these news sources? If not, I encourage you to spend a week watching and/or reading. Break out of your bubble and give these news sources a try. Keep track of any perceived factual errors and do the hard work to fact-check these sources (this is what legitimate reporters do every day). If you’ve doubted the veracity of these publications, I think you will be in for a surprise. While reporters make the occasional mistake and some media sources like to create drama to draw viewers/readers, you’ll find that these news sources tell it like it is with regard to the Trump Administration.
As you watch and read, realize that there’s a big difference between news and opinion. Too many Americans seem to not know the difference between reportage and opinion. Anything labeled commentary or op-ed is just one person’s opinion. I suggest starting your news monitoring with the New York Times, which was included on the president’s “failing” list. In fact, “The New York Times made more than $1 billion in overall subscription revenue in 2017,” according to Forbes (which is far from a liberal publication).
So, what would an actual enemy of the people do? An enemy of the American people:
- Suppresses free speech, bars reporters from media briefings, and tells crowds at campaign events to jeer journalists.
- Appoints judges that make rulings that take away the basic rights of workers to organize and protest unfair labor practices.
- Appoints heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of the Interior that systematically dismantle environmental laws that have protected us from unhealthy air, water, and soil for decades. I don’t think the more than 35 million Americans with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer will be helped one bit by the elimination of laws and regulations that restrict air pollution.
- Tells us that other human beings (who happen to live in less-fortunate situations in other countries) are animals or groups to be feared.
- Tells us that members of other political parties (including the more than 70 million Americans who voted Democratic, Libertarian, or Green Party in the 2016 presidential election) are un-American because they have legitimate concerns about the future of this country. An enemy of the people believes that if you’re not with him in every way, you’re against him.
- Keeps trying to convince us that the Russian government is our friend, despite the fact that every major U.S. intelligence agency, where both Republicans and Democrats serve, have told us without a doubt that the Russians influenced our last presidential election and that they plan to do so again during the midterms in November.
- Tells the American people that we can have a “good relationship” with Russia despite the fact that hackers linked to the Russian government conduct cyberattacks on the U.S. infrastructure that are “literally happening hundreds of thousands of times a day,” according to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. “Since at least March 2016, Russian government cyber actors … targeted government entities and multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors, including the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors,” according to an alert issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
These facts tell me who the real enemy of the people is, but you should make your own decision based on the facts.
But you might consider President Jefferson’s thoughts on the importance of the media: “The only security of all is in a free press.” This seems like good advice even 230 years later.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy