by Ralph Scharnau
Freedom is the central tenet of how we view ourselves individually and as a nation. It is embedded in our history and language. Simultaneously it has been contested in debates and dissents in Congress, in political books/essays/editorials, in parlors, and on picket lines.
The history of the American republic reveals expanding freedoms to include more and more people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, 18-year-olds, and others who have struggled to deepen and transform the definition of freedom. Belief in freedom as a human right has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit freedom by gender, race, class, and in other ways. Over time, slaves, women, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ folks have struggled to secure civil liberties.
Today, when asked to define their rights as citizens, Americans instinctively turn to the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Constitution’s First Amendment, freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly/petition, endures as the most basic and litigated of all the Amendments.
A google search of the term freedom currently shows that most results focus on the press. This is not surprising given the current occupant of the White House who often makes slurring remarks about the press. And journalists today face the pressures of a 24-hour news cycle as well as the threat of possible layoffs.
Criticism of the press most assuredly is not new. Since the birth of the republic, presidents and other politicians have frequently questioned the neutrality and objectivity of specific journalists, their stories, and their publications.
Yet President Trump has raised the stakes to a different, incendiary level. He has described news organizations critical of his administration as “the enemy of the American people.” He has referred to reporters as “sad, hacks, crooked, scum, slime, dishonest, and disgusting.” These slanderous statements have become his favorite weapons in the attacks on news organizations he finds personally offensive.
More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on those in the news media who deliver negative accounts of his administration. While vilifying his critics (the Washington Post and CNN) as purveyors of “fake news,” he applauds and offers special access to those praising his administration (Wall Street Journal and Fox and Friends).
The president’s animus toward the media coverage that he dislikes has reached a point where he has even suggested license revocation and stricter libel laws. He has threatened to sue media he considers unfair to him.
The effect of President Trump’s repeated vitriolic attacks on journalists undermines press freedom. The Trump administration has attempted to jail journalists and crack down on freedom of information.
President Trump’s words and behavior coarsen political discourse. This man uses vile rhetoric. He also arrogates to himself alone the responsibility for fixing all the nation’s ills. The clear danger here lies in his authoritarian tendencies while dismissing the opinions of certain journalists and, at times, the advice of fellow Republicans.
As the nation experiences a tumultuous and oppressive chapter in its history, it should be remembered that the story of American freedom remains unfinished. Debates over its meanings will continue, and new globalized conversations and definitions of freedom will emerge. One thing seems clear, the press should continue to fervently demand its freedom to report the news and steadfastly refuse to be intimidated by abusive tactics from those who would stifle its independence. In this way, the press will truly continue to fulfill its constitutional duty to inform the American public.