In 1690, when English settlers did not yet enjoy the constitutional right to a free press, the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor described the fledgling Publick Occurrences as having “sundry doubtful and untruthful reports.”
To put that in 2018 terms, Benjamin Hall’s upstart colonial newspaper was described as “fake news” because it was not the approved word of the government. The newspaper was banned, and copies of that first issue were gathered up and destroyed.
That courageous first attempt at telling the truth of a tyrannical government would be followed by others, and would ultimately lead to this nation’s founders including protections for a free press in the U.S. Constitution — not as some afterthought, but so important that it was included in the First Amendment.
Today, we join more than 200 newspapers in taking up the cause of what the Boston Globe called President Donald Trump’s “dirty war against the free press.” Trump has described the press as the “enemy of the people,” and his rhetoric has been growing even after five employees of the Capital Gazette were killed in a violent attack, when many journalists, including this newspaper, called for an end to his harmful attacks against free speech and freedom of the press.
Trump has whipped his supporters into a frenzy against the media. People sport “Fight fake news” bumper stickers and post venomous attacks on social media.
At Trump rallies (Why is a sitting president who is not yet campaigning for a second term holding rallies anyway?), members of the media are bullied and chastised. Photographs from a recent event in Tampa, Fla., showed Trump supporters saluting the press with middle fingers, chanting “CNN sucks,” and wearing T shirts that read “[Expletive] the media.”
Unfortunately, the press does provide ammunition to Trump supporters at times — and they latch on like a great white shark feeding on an unsuspecting seal for lunch. ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross is perhaps the poster child for fake news. Ross was fired after airing an incorrect report that it was President Trump who ordered Michael Flynn to make contact with the Russians during the campaign.
It was a terrible lapse that cost Ross his job, as it should.
But the mistake of one journalist is not a license to erase the credibility of every other journalist working hard to get confirmation of things that Trump and others don’t want the public to know. At an Islanders Write forum, “Politics and the Press: Covering the Chaos,” sponsored by The Times earlier this month, Melinda Henneberger of the Kansas City Star told the audience how scary it is for the press to cover Trump: “We could always have conversations. They’d tease you, but were willing to talk. I began talking to a guy recently, and he began screaming, calling, ‘Fake news!’ I honestly became concerned he was going to his truck and get a gun,” she said.
This is where we are at, America. Is this really where we want to be?
On a recent Sunday, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”
Trump has convinced his supporters that the press is making up stories about him to put his presidency in a negative light, even though Trump’s own Twitter account is one of the biggest sources of incorrect information on a daily basis.
Enough is enough.
We take our constitutional rights seriously. Sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate, the press is not part of the three branches of government, but is instead a watchdog. We embrace that important ideal.
Benjamin Franklin put it best in this quote pulled from his writing in the Pennsylvania Gazette:
“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.”
We’re not willing to let that happen. That’s a fact.