Guest column: Demonizing journalists ‘dishonors our history’
Journalists in the U.S. are never off limits for criticism. But what we’re seeing right now goes too far. We must fight back.
We must fight a president-elect who obsessively attacks the press on Twitter, fight death threats toward reporters and editors, fight anti-semitism on social media, fight the resurrection of the Nazi-Germany term “Lugenpresse.”
It’s an affront to our national heritage. And if the American people don’t remember or understand this, we need to remind them. Often. So as we prepare to embark on a Donald Trump presidency, I offer a mini manifesto to share with press-hating friends, family, co-workers and strangers.
One of the most bold and dangerous lies of our moment is the notion that scorn, or even violence, toward reporters is patriotic. Trump and his press-attacking supporters — from Curt Schilling to anonymous rally attendees — should spend a minute with Anthony Lewis’s biography of the First Amendment, which begins by calling the U.S. “the most outspoken society on Earth,” where people “are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people.” There’s an indelible, nonpartisan lesson in this book: When you insult and undermine the press, you play an active role in making America less exceptional.
For evidence, start at the very beginning. The Bill of Rights reminds us that, for the architects of the United States, press freedom was literally a top priority. Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Freedom of Speech is ever the Symptom, as well as the Effect of a good Government.” John Adams wrote, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.”
Since Republicans will soon control the House, Senate and White House, it’s worth highlighting conservatives throughout history who have agreed. Richard Nixon (of all people!) gave Medals of Freedom to eight journalists in one day. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart voted to give The New York Times and Washington Post a green light to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers, in 1971. Ronald Reagan gave journalists a shout-out in his 1985 State of the Union, when he said, “Victories against poverty are greatest and peace most secure where people live by laws that ensure free press, free speech, and freedom to worship, vote, and create wealth.”
But it isn’t just our history that shows how American and journalistic values are intertwined. Look at the regimes with which we have the starkest ideological differences — places like North Korea, Iran, China and Cuba. All appear on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent “10 Most Censored Countries” list.
This isn’t to say the U.S. has a perfect record on press freedom. Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1798. Abraham Lincoln and his surrogates sometimes wavered in their commitment to free speech during the Civil War. And, in modern times, we’ve seen 9/11 try our resolve.
But here’s the thing: We as a country have never permanently succumbed to the urge to restrict speech. The responses to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet on flag-burning were a reminder of that. Our staunch defense of “the right from which all others flow” is a central part of who we are.
Demonizing journalists doesn’t just dishonor our history; it also carries a high risk of hypocrisy. Press freedoms are not only enshrined in the Bill of Rights, they’ve been upheld by landmark court decisions. You can’t call for law and order or fight to protect one law (say, the Second Amendment) while attacking legally protected speech and reporting. That makes you a part-time patriot.
Dwight Eisenhower understood this when he called censorship a “stupid and shallow way of approaching the solution to any problem.” Antonin Scalia understood this when he said, “it would be not much use to have a First Amendment … if the freedom of speech included only what some future generation wanted it to include.”
James Madison — “Father of the Constitution”; fourth president; namesake for cities, universities, rivers, buildings, mountains, warships — understood this, too, when he wrote, “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
You can call yourself many things while you foment hatred toward reporters, but “all-American” is not one of them. Journalism is our original — and enduring — national anthem.
This article is reprinted with permission of Columbia Journalism Review, cjr.org, where it originally appeared. For information on becoming a member of CJR, please go to http://tinyurl.com/CJRmembership. Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Salon, VICE and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets.
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