The media has been a central topic of discussion throughout the 2016 presidential election and into this first month of Donald Trump’s presidency. Early in his campaign, Trump began accusing mainstream media sources of inaccurate and biased reports, leading to a shift away from mainstream media and toward other (sometimes fake) news sources. After the inauguration, such a rivalry between the president and the mainstream media is expected, especially with a figure who receives such public attention as Donald Trump. Last week, however, this conflict escalated when Trump wrote a message on Twitter which claimed that the media was not his enemy, but “the enemy of the American people”. While tensions between a president and the media are unavoidable and perhaps even necessary, Trump’s recent warmongering words cross a line of decency that has until now been preserved through 45 presidencies.
It is one thing to make accusations about the integrity of the mainstream media; it is another to use the words “enemy of the American people” to refer to a news institution. The phrase is an overzealous attempt in dividing the media and the people into “us” and “them,” and it cannot be dismissed as a careless remark when one considers its historical connotations. During the French Revolution, for example, Maximilien Robespierre referred to those deposed from power as “enemies of the people” to whom the Revolutionary government “owes nothing but death”. The phrase then became quite common in the Soviet Union and today would be likened to the Islamic State or a similar terrorist organization. To use the same terminology to describe the media is not only preposterous, but also an alarming exaggeration considering the speaker has such great public influence.
Of course, Trump is not the first president to exhibit a rivalry with the media. According to a New York Times report, in 1972 Richard Nixon told the national security advisor, Henry A. Kissinger, that “the press is the enemy”. Thomas Jefferson also said that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” according to a piece from the Washington Post. Both of these men, however, still understood the necessity of freedom of the press, which differentiates them from Trump. Jefferson specifically raised a vital point that Trump has overlooked. Despite his distaste for newspapers, Jefferson wrote to fellow delegate Edward Carrington in 1787, stating, “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”. He later pardoned those who had been accused under the Sedition Act for writing too freely about the government.
Jefferson understood the necessity of a critical, sometimes hostile media in return for a free press, and this relationship, however contentious, is in fact one of the healthiest components of democracy because it promotes discussion between two very different sources. Senator John McCain said as much in an interview with NBC: “I hate the press. But the fact is… we must have it. It’s vital.” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace also recognized the importance of the media, saying that criticism between news outlets and presidents was completely acceptable, but that calling the news media the enemy of the American people was crossing an important line that Barack Obama never breached.
This is not to say that the media is entirely guiltless. In fact, many mainstream sources have displayed clear biases and reported misguided falsehoods. But it is important to note that the intention of the media is to function for the American people, not against them. The news institution is the nation’s greatest exercise of free press. If Trump manages to turn the American public against the media, he will not have to make any moves against freedom of the press; we will have done it for him. Then, it is only inevitable that people will turn to other sources for their information, whether they be fake news sources or the government itself. It is good not to trust any one source in excess. Only with the media and the government operating in concert can we be exposed to as many sides of a story as possible in the hopes of eventually finding the truth.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.