President Trump, a leader who does not know much history, is certainly unaware of a speech made in 1956 by Nikita Khruschev to denounce Stalin’s cult of personality in which he called for an end to the use of the term “enemy of the people” by reminding Russians that it was used to “annihilate” individuals who disagreed with Stalin.
Nazi Germany used the term extensively and called for the “enemies of the people” to be expelled or killed. Not to be undone, in 1957 China’s Mao Zedong called “enemies of the people” those who resisted the “socialist revolution.” In the United States, in February 2017, the newly elected president Donald Trump said it first on Twitter and then frequently repeated it: “the Fake news media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!”
Fortunately, in August 2018, the Senate passed a resolution declaring that the press is not the “enemy of the people.” It was an important rebuke of a president whose hatred for the free press has no precedent in American democracy, with the exception of Richard Nixon’s vituperations against several newspapers. The honor of the American press, admired all over the world by freedom-loving people, was abominably disparaged last July by President Trump in a foreign country, Finland, when he said that the summit with Russia was “a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the fake news media.”
Tragically, the president’s mission to denounce the press has had grave consequences in violent actions against journalists and media venues. A deadly assault last June by a deranged person against the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, has been linked by many to the anti-press rhetoric. In the wake of that shooting that left five journalists dead, it took some chutzpah for Trump to say that “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” Since then, President Trump has not stopped castigating the media as “enemies of the people.” He did it at Political Action Conferences where the multiple repetitions of the accusation were greeted by vibrant applause, and at numerous rallies, most recently a few days ago in South Carolina, where he referred to an “opposing news network” as “the enemy of the people fake news.”
Threats against newspapers and television networks have become all too common. A typical episode happened last August when a California man was arrested and charged with making violent threats to Boston Globe employees, calling the newspaper “the enemy of the people.” Shortly after, Trump accused the Globe of “collusion”with other papers “pushing a political agenda to hurt people.”
What is most surprising is that while other presidents abstained from discussing politics in the immediate aftermath of tragedies and terror actions with loss of many lives, President Trump was under no compulsion to observe a respectful pause but after expressing sorrow went right back to attacking Democratic political figures and of course, the press, guilty of scoring political points in its coverage. While many leaders of American society called for cooling the rhetoric, the president did not abide by such urgings and expressed concern for the impact that political violence was having on Republican momentum ahead of the election.
There was a time when media was known and respected as the “fourth estate,” a term that referred to the watchdog role of the press, the guarantee for a functioning democracy. Since then, many big changes came into being, starting with shrinking readership. The most relevant to the present open hostility to the press is that since the start of the new century, less than half of Americans profess trust in the mass media. It is a remarkable decline for an institution designed to inform the public.
The explosion of social media has magnified the disruptive effects of digital information. A study done by the Pew Research Center has put a finger on the festering wound: “Americans think that journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, more biased, less honest about their mistakes, and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.” The report distills the problem as “a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive.”
Donald Trump’s “disconnection” underlies an unrelenting crusade against the media. He has a dominating motive that is easily identified: the promotion of himself and his myriad representations of social and political realities. Herein lies the drama of the press, having to report the daily if not hourly on the strident whirlwind of President Trump’s pronouncements. The epithet of “fake news” is hard to push back for the simple reason that it is addressed not just at the information itself but rather the human beings behind it, the professionals that strive to sort through the chaff, in an almost perverse attempt to separate truth from falsehood. In President Trump’s world, this is not just difficult, it is useless.
The only way to defend the press from the present day onslaught is to recall what it did for the nation in the past. Americans should remember – or better, the young should learn – that in the 1950s the press put an end to Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt; in the 1970s it exposed President Nixon’s Watergate scandal; in 2013 it unveiled the NSA mass surveillance program and paved the way for significant reforms for the protection of American citizens and their civil liberties.
Traditionally, the press has challenged the abuses of government power. It has fought with presidents under the protection of First Amendment rights. At the moment, it is under attack by a president who ignores such rights. It is losing the battle to frame the political agenda while President Trump has made denigrating the media one of his identifying features. Even in a national crisis, the Republican president is sticking to his anti-media strategy. As a strategy, it is working. Ninety-nine percent of his supporters trust him to provide accurate information. Reporters just cannot keep up with his distortions and misleading assertions. One is reminded of a dictum of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels: “propaganda must be utilized again and again and its theme must be repeated; it must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.” This dictum has been followed and applied all over the world, with the exception of a few democracies. And now, it seems to have come to America.