Of all the remarks made by President Donald Trump – on any issue – the one that perhaps has evoked the most outrage was his labeling of the media as the “enemy of the people.” Trump first used this term in February 2017, and a number of prominent media figures have held it against him ever since. Was he really wrong to make such an accusation? A friend tells the truth; an enemy does not.
Consider the special status afforded the media and their unique ability to influence popular culture, opinion, and even political agendas. Consider the very reason the founding fathers rightly held sacred the concept of a free press, immune from government regulation, threats, or coercion. Then consider the old saying “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Power and Responsibility
The press – in this electronic age, known more commonly as the media – has the power to hold those in authority accountable for their actions. One could say the media are the nation’s chief whistleblowers, exposing abuses of power, corruption, and government overreach. Thomas Jefferson was an uncompromising champion of this power, even though his own relationship with the press of his day was highly contentious.
Just as the media have the power to hold the nation’s political leaders accountable, they also have a responsibility to do so objectively, without the taint of their biases and prejudices. When journalists choose to exercise their sacred duty to speak truth to power only when it suits them, they do enormous damage to the cause of liberty. When they twist the truth, omit certain facts, or recount events that may not even have happened, they abdicate their great responsibility to the nation, even as they continue to exercise their enormous power to influence both public opinion and government policy.
Feeding the public false information or political propaganda is every bit as insidious as the media being directly controlled by the government. Refusing to expose government misconduct, out of personal loyalty to the political leaders of the day, is even worse. That is exactly what the establishment media did for the eight years of the Barack Obama presidency. Between 2008 and 2016, the most influential national newspapers, along with the broadcast and cable news networks – with the exception of Fox News – acted as a virtual propaganda wing of the Obama administration.
Obama-Era Media Betrayal of the Public
The many scandals of those years – Solyndra, Fast and Furious, the Benghazi affair and the lies administration officials told to cover it up, IRS targeting of conservative organizations – all were ignored by a loyal and fawning media. Worse still, these media organizations actively denied the scandals were in any way scandalous. When Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, effectively assuming the authority to rewrite U.S. immigration law, there was no media outcry over abuse of power or the abandonment of the separation of powers in government.
The media did not even take the Obama administration to task for its surveillance of journalists – and in some cases the families of journalists. Where was the indignation then? Where was their fearless defense of press freedom during those years? Even the American Civil Liberties Union panned Obama for his trampling of the First Amendment while the media themselves remained largely silent.
Defining the Enemy of the People
The label “enemy of the people” is worth closer examination. Many left-wing journalists, along with numerous other opponents of President Trump, have suggested that his use of this moniker to describe the news media is tantamount to inciting violence against journalists. If that were true, you could argue that these same journalists and political opponents of the president have incited violence against him and his supporters.
In the opinion pages of newspapers and on television news – and even directly from the mouths of Democrat politicians – Trump has been variously labeled a dictator, a tyrant, a Nazi, a racist, a bigot, and even an agent of the Russian government. Are not each of these accusations the equivalent of calling the president an “enemy of the people”? Are they not incitements of violence against him? It is also worth noting that Trump did not drive Americans to distrust the media; the latter lost the public trust many years before Trump made his decision to run for office.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the most prominent news media organizations did everything they could to swing the election in favor of the Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton. Often this effort extended to reporting false stories, making dire predictions of what would happen if Trump were elected, or grossly distorting the truth. Russian interlopers did the very same thing, though their efforts were far smaller in scale and mostly targeted Clinton. Would the legacy media consider those Russians enemies of the American people for what they did?
The media are not the enemy of the people because they so despise and criticize this president. They are the enemy of the people because they willfully misinform the public and because they choose to hold accountable only those politicians with whom they have ideological differences. Those elected officials who pursue policies the media supports are never called out for abuses of power or criminal endeavors in which they engage. This deliberately selective investigation and reporting do as much damage to a free society as having no free press at all.
The Russians for decades have sought to wage an information war upon the American people and political establishment. Their methods are for the most part centered around spreading false information, and their goal is to sow confusion, discontent, and anger. The American establishment media are conducting their own information war on Americans: Their methods are the same, as is their goal. Which of them is the enemy of the people? The Russians? The American media? Perhaps the answer is both.
Only the Media Can Redeem Themselves
Thankfully, America still has a free press, even if in name only. The current president – unlike his predecessor – has taken no action to diminish that. The very fact that the media are independent of government oversight means they retain the power to restore to themselves the trust of the people and once again to perform their duty to the nation, a duty so important that the founders explicitly protected it in the First Amendment.
The first step to restoring its special place in American society is for journalists to accept the fact that they are not above criticism. Indeed, they must accept the fact that, by virtue of their constitutionally protected status, they are held to a higher standard. The next step is for those journalists to confine their personal opinions – or the political agendas of their editorial boards or parent companies – to the editorial pages and not allow those opinions to taint the reporting of news and events. The third step is to tell the American people the unvarnished truth, no matter how much they may not like it. This goes hand in hand with holding all politicians to the same standards.
When an individual or an organization sets out to deceive and misinform, with the intention of derailing the course of events from what it otherwise would have been, that individual or organization is acting as an enemy, not as a friend. This is the lesson the media must learn. To be a friend to the American people, one must tell them – to borrow from the legal oath of the witness – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
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