Attacking the press

Let’s start this discussion on the White House-engineered assault on the First Amendment and the news media with a couple of admissions.

Yes, this newspaper and other legitimate news organizations sometimes get the story wrong. Yes, there is an institutional bias in some news outlets, whether it be the liberal bent of The New York Times and NPR or the conservative one of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

But none of that — the occasional mistake, the tendency to decide what’s news and where to dig based on the personal values of the reporters and editors — makes the news media “the enemy of the people,” as President Donald Trump and some of his most steadfast supporters like to say. It makes the news media imperfect, but at least imperfect in a way that tries to be self-correcting. Who else but a newspaper, for instance, willingly gives space to its critics, not just when the criticism is justified but also when it’s not?

The “enemy of the people,” if there is one, are those who would try to make it tougher for the press to do one of its most essential jobs — holding government and those who serve in it accountable — and through their heated rhetoric possibly put journalists at risk.

In some parts of this world, journalism is a dangerous profession. Those who speak truth to power can find themselves dead. In those countries, “shooting the messenger” is not just a metaphor but a real possibility.

America, though, has a history of respecting the value of journalism, even if sometimes ambivalently. No less than Thomas Jefferson, the oft-cited First Amendment champion, would later rue about the rough treatment he received from an aggressive and heavily partisan press on his way to the presidency and during his time in office. Still Jefferson understood that as imperfect as the practitioners of journalism could be, there was no other way to keep government honest and to keep the people informed about what those in office were doing than to have the press as a watchdog.

Our reporters and editors — as do journalists throughout this nation — believe what they do is an honorable if demanding calling, one that very few will get rich at, one that can cost you friends, but one that is essential if democracy is to survive as we know it.

The president and his copycats can claim the news that shows them unfavorably is “fake.” They can wish that the First Amendment were more narrowly interpreted. They can try to bully journalists in front of friendly audiences.

But in the end, the journalists will survive them, not because journalists are superior individuals but because the service they perform is indispensable to preserving freedom, liberty and all the other hallmarks of what it means to live in America.

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