If this column were to go away, I don’t harbor the illusion that many people would mourn much. It’s just one voice. But if your access to information and your ability to compare claims with fact were to diminish or end, you’d better care. Because the democratic fabric that’s knit together our Republic will be in serious peril.
Things are already perilous enough. Just recently, we saw a woman convicted for laughing at the Attorney General — I’m sorry, for “disrupting” his meeting. We saw professional loudmouth Ann Coulter shut down at Berkeley, by rioters — odious as her (calculated) views are, this is supposed to be America, and if the threat of violence can silence her, it can silence anyone.
We have a president who lies — without embarrassment and, others have noted, with no strategy other than the ones friends and foes backward-project onto him, in a futile attempt to make sense of the man. But there is no method to Donald Trump. There appears to be only madness.
Fact-checking any public servant is vital to keeping that servant accountable. It is non-negotiable when it comes to the office of president: From everyone to whom much is given, much shall be required. Because fact-checking is conducted by other human beings, it is not perfect and it is not fail-safe; that doesn’t mean it’s sensible to junk the entire concept.
Presidents, because they are human beings too, often have an uneasy relationship with fact-checkers, aka, the functioning press. (Note I said “functioning.”) Presidents despise the press at times. When the sacred trust of journalism collides with a person for whom only unquestioning adulation will suffice, the peril should be obvious.
Trump has raved that the press is full of liars, and labeled any negative coverage as “fake.” He has called the press the enemy of the people — which in his world is true: He is the only “people” in that narrow, chaotic place, and the press takes note of his failings. It is a pity the press did not take more of a note while he was only candidate Trump, or we might not be in this mess.
But we are. And he continues painting fact-checkers as the enemy; behaving as though the problem is the reporting of facts, rather than the facts themselves.
Trump blusters about “opening up” libel laws to “go after” the authors of negative stories. In the wake of his highly suspect firing of FBI director James Comey, he has said it’s not possible for his surrogates to stand at the podium and speak with “perfect accuracy” because he’s just so dynamic. The most egregious attack (as of this writing, anyway): his petulant threat to stop holding press briefings and just hand out “fact” sheets.
The way this would endanger American values should be obvious even to potted cacti, but instead of pushback from anyone with the ability to rein in this Walking Id, we get Newt Gingrich yammering about how it’s all a swell idea.
“What they ought to do is get out of all this junk, they ought to focus on the big goals, they ought to report to the nation on the big goals, ignore all these reporters, close down the press room and send the reporters off …” Gingrich said on ardent Trump propagandist Sean Hannity’s show.
Look, Newt — I get it. The mean, nasty press exposed your shortcomings and hypocrisy when you had your moment of power. And if you’re worried about what the press will report, and so concerned about controlling the messenger, perhaps you should at least attempt to corral Trump’s Twitter tantrums, which are a gold mine yielding easy wealth for even the laziest reporters.
More seriously, if you actually believe it’s just fine for the president to formally dodge questions, you are a fool, not merely a craven opportunist.
Let me break it down for you and people who agree with you. Freedom of the press is intended to benefit the people — not “the press,” per se.
When Ben Franklin — owner of newspapers, by the way — reportedly announced the fledging United States’ system of governance as “a republic, if you can keep it,” I like to think it was because he understood “keeping it” entailed holding government accountable. The ill-conceived Sedition Act aside, the founders appeared to grasp the role a free press and free speech play in accountability. A leader who cannot allow scrutiny, let alone tolerate it, has no place in our sort of republic.
Not liking a report does not make that report “dishonest.” Being able to bring the power of the courts to bear against people for producing a story a leader finds “negative” is exceedingly dangerous and chilling — not the least because “negative” is a subjective standard. There are already legal remedies for knowingly spreading false information. Accountability applies to the media; it also applies to the president.
Trump certainly is entitled to take his message “directly to the people” and tweet until his fingers fall off, as he, too, has First Amendment rights. But advancing the notion that propaganda directly from the lips or keyboard of the president should somehow supplant and replace third-party reporting is to enable autocracy. The thing about enabling autocrats is that it tends to end well only for them.
Information actually is power: the power to discern when the government is lying to you or acting against your interests. What Trump and Gingrich suggest is nothing less than stripping the public of its ability to gather that information. And a disturbing number of voices from the public seem unconcerned with this, suggesting Trump is giving “the media” its comeuppance, rather than skirting accountability.
The need for the press remains as critical for democracy as it was in the days of Franklin. To bottom-line it: Donald Trump works for us. We for damn sure have the right to know what he is doing, and the institutions upon which we rely as watchdogs need to grow, not diminish.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.