‘Fake news’ attack reminiscent of a sort of bullying of the press that conservatives raged against not that long ago.
by Kirsten Powers
Friday we learned that the real foe of the American people is not Russia, which last week had a spy ship lurking off the Connecticut coast, but is in fact the people who bring you the daily news.
Presumably in reaction to Thursday’s adversarial news conference, the president of the United States took to his Twitter feed to accuse the (“failing”) New York Times, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and CNN of being “the enemy of the American people!”
We know that the president hates the mainstream media. This is not news. Since taking office, he has been single-minded in his attempt to undermine news outlets he doesn’t have under his thumb. He relentlessly accuses non-conservative media outlets of being “fake news” and “the opposition party” to undermine trust in one of the two institutions in our society that will hold him accountable. The other is the judiciary, upon which he has launched similar attacks. (The GOP-controlled Congress shouldn’t be counted on to provide accountability, at least in the near term.)
The press is often referred to as the fourth estate — capturing its role as an unofficial fourth branch of government — and provided with special constitutional protections precisely because a free press is so fundamental to a functioning democracy. While President Trump is not engaging in any First Amendment violations as a matter of law, his behavior goes against the spirit of the Constitution by using his influence to try to silence and delegitimize dissenting speech.
Trump’s “fake news” attack is reminiscent of a sort of bullying of the press that conservatives raged against not that long ago. Early in his first term, President Obama’s White House trained its sights on the one media outlet that was giving them heartburn — Fox News — and proclaimed it “an opponent.” Senior White House officials explained to anyone who’d listen that Fox News was “not a news organization.”
White House communications chief Anita Dunn told CNN in 2009, “Let’s not pretend (Fox News is) a news network the way CNN is.” When the White House cut Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace out of a round of interviews the president was doing with the Sunday shows, deputy White House communications chief Dan Pfeiffer explained to The New York Times: “We simply decided to stop abiding by the fiction … that Fox is a traditional news organization.” When asked by NBC News about his administration’s attacks on Fox News, Obama defended them, asserting that it operated in a talk radio format, not a news format.
This isn’t really true, but even if it were, it wouldn’t make Fox News not a news organization.
Like Trump, Team Obama sought to delegitimize a powerful media outlet so its reporting would not be taken seriously by Americans. Liberals cheered the White House’s war on Fox News, much the same way Trump supporters are rallying behind their man as he mocks the notion of the press as a countervailing force to his elected power.
However terrible the Obama administration’s behavior was, it looks positively quaint compared with the Trump administration employing the kind of rhetoric one normally associates with Chairman Mao or Joseph Stalin. Notice that Trump has declared criticism and questioning of him as an attack on the American people, most of whom didn’t even vote for him. He is not America; he is not the State; he is not a stand-in for “the American people.”
That Trump conflates these things is dangerous. It’s telling that even President Nixon, the standard-bearer of media hatred, only labeled the press “the enemy” in a private 1972 conversation caught on tape.
In criticizing the president’s “enemy” tweet Sunday on Meet the Press, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., summed up the situation aptly: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free — and many times adversarial — press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time — that’s how dictators get started.”
Kirsten Powers, author of The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, writes often for USA TODAY. Previously she worked for Fox News and is now an analyst for CNN. Follow her on Twitter @KirstenPowers.
SOURCE: USA Today