President Trump, the truth and the American press

Last Saturday in Nuevo Laredo, columnist and investigative reporter Carlos Dominguez was waiting at a traffic light with his son, his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren when men armed with knives flung open the car door. The Los Angeles Times reports that Dominguez was stabbed 21 times. He joined the 11 Mexican journalists slain in 2017 fighting drug cartels and public corruption, attempting to do what may be impossible now, which is to prevent a failed state from existing on America’s southern flank.

Worldwide, 80 journalists were murdered in 2017 and another 326 were detained by authorities for doing their jobs. Both those numbers are down, mostly because a number of failed states like Syria are too dangerous and the press has pulled back. When that happens, it’s hard for us to know what is actually happening there.

I write about this today because two Arizona Republicans had the courage to call out President Trump for branding the American press “enemies of the people.” As a journalist, an American and a patriot, I’ve conveyed to my friends who support President Trump how utterly offensive to us it is for an American president to so recklessly brand one of the key pillars of democracy.

We could play the fill-in-the-blank game: How would you feel if someone called lobbyists “enemies of the American people”? Or cops? Or Democrats? Or Sikhs? Or Jews? You get the point.

So we find ourselves at the surreal end of President Trump’s first year in office, and watch in awe that two Republicans, including the 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, have to step up and stand for dignity utterly lacking in this White House.

McCain writes in a Washington Post op-ed, “President Reagan recognized that as leader of the free world, his words carried enormous weight, and he used them to inspire the unprecedented spread of democracy around the world.

“President Trump does not seem to understand that his rhetoric and actions reverberate in the same way. He has threatened to continue his attempt to discredit the free press by bestowing ‘fake news awards’ upon reporters and news outlets whose coverage he disagrees with,” McCain continued. “Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.”

McCain continues, “Trump’s attempts to undermine the free press also make it more difficult to hold repressive governments accountable. For decades, dissidents and human rights advocates have relied on independent investigations into government corruption to further their fight for freedom. But constant cries of ‘fake news’ undercut this type of reporting and strip activists of one of their most powerful tools of dissent. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values. Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.”

Sen. Flake, a former kindred conservative friend of Vice President Mike Pence, is retiring after unrelenting criticism from President Trump. He took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to compare the President of the United States to the Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin, who murdered tens of million of his own people and enemies of his police state.

“Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident….’” Flake began. “So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America. As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.’ During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.”

Flake continued, noting that “2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

“Mr. President,” Flake then said, “it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”

By the time Flake finished speaking, he had summoned the warning of “1984” author George Orwell: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

I’ve had Hoosier Republicans question why I write the way I do about President Trump. My consistent response is that he lies all the time, and he runs an operation so unprofessional, that it is unbecoming to the White House where the best and brightest among us should be toiling to preserve the cornerstones of democracy.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. From 1979 to 1990 he was a reporter and editor at the Elkhart Truth.

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