Assaults on the media could cause lasting damage to democracy

FILE- In this Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks to the March for Life participants from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. The funding feud, which led to a government shutdown at midnight Friday, Jan. 19, is the second time Trump has dived into a negotiation and come up short on a top priority. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

FILE- In this Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks to the March for Life participants from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. The funding feud, which led to a government shutdown at midnight Friday, Jan. 19, is the second time Trump has dived into a negotiation and come up short on a top priority. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

There are many actions the Trump Administration has taken that have run counter to democratic norms. Appointing his children and their spouses to important jobs in the White House. Attacking our own intelligence agencies and refusing to accept their evidence that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. Demeaning the office of the presidency by using his power and platform to bully and belittle everyone from United States senators to union leaders. Each of these actions is damaging in their own right, but what is likely to be the most damaging are his attacks on the free press.

Throughout his candidacy and presidency Trump has repeatedly criticized the “Fake News Media,” a broad term that he generally applies to any media outlet publishing something that is disagreeable to him. No outlet is safe, from CNN and MSNBC to even Fox News. This continuous labeling of the news media as fake by the president, his administration, his supporters, and even by other “news” organizations is eroding the public’s faith in the free press.

Recent polls  have shown that Americans have less confidence in the media than nearly any other institution. Only 30 percent of the people in this country have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the media, thanks in large part to 90 percent of Republicans expressing a lack of confidence. Compounding this lack of trust is the fact that while a majority of citizens (58 percent) trust their favorite news source more than President Trump 63 percent of Republicans trust the president more.

That last statistic is truly chilling. When that many Americans are willing to trust one politician, especially one that has demonstrably lied countless times, more than their favorite news source, there can be dangerous ramifications for our democracy. The president can basically deny any reporting and most of his supporters will take his side regardless of what the truth is. For our democracy to work, it is critical for a politician’s supporters to hold them accountable. Unless they are willing to do that, a lawmaker will be encouraged to act with impunity because nothing that happens will affect their base of support. If someone always believes whatever a politician says, they are incapable of holding them accountable.

A free and independent media is one of the pillars of democracy. It is the reason that Nixon was brought down by the Watergate scandal, and it is a check on tyranny around the world. A record number of journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2017, including many on “fake news” charges. The tactic currently being used by Trump is the same method that dictators use to crush dissent and keep themselves in power. When he engages in this behavior in a country that’s supposed to be a beacon of freedom he undermines the cause of democracy everywhere and makes it harder to hold repressive regimes accountable.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Freedom House, a non-governmental and non-partisan organization that conducts research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, recently issued a report saying that the actions of Trump have directly contributed to the global erosion of democracy. This erosion was in part due to his repeated attacks on the press although other decisions, such as his negligence in dealing with Russian election interference, also played a role.

There are a number of steps that we as a country can take to reverse the damage that has been done. First, supporters of the president should stop blindly following his lead and labeling everything that contradicts or criticizes the president as fake news. They must be willing to hold the president accountable for the things he says and does, and that has to start with putting some faith in outlets like CNN or NBC. These networks are not fake news. There may be some bias in their reporting but by no means do they fabricate stories.

We must also diversify how we get our news. Only getting news from one source is generally not a good idea (unless it’s the Daily Campus of course). Hearing accounts on a particular topic from a variety of places helps an observer get all the facts on an issue. Skepticism of any source is important, but if overall mistrust of the media continues to rise, we may be heading down a very dark path.


Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.