Donald Trump and his White House team feel aggrieved. The news is all so negative. Totally unfair. Press secretary Sean Spicer said that he felt demoralized days into the new gig and chief strategist Steve Bannon infamously declared journalists the “opposition party.”
Of course, tone comes from the top and our often fact-free President rarely loses an opportunity to call critics “fake news,” stooping to tin-pot dictator talking points on Friday by tweeting that the press should be considered “the enemy of the American people.”
While Trump’s all-out war on the media may be unique, his complaints are not. The tension between a free press and the government is intentional – part of the essential check and balances of a free society the founding fathers envisioned. After all, the constitution doesn’t mention political parties, but it does mention journalists.
Even the founding fathers had a complicated relationship with the early reporters George Washington called “infamous scribblers.” While James Madison believed that “to the press alone, checkered 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,” the primary author of the Constitution spoke from personal knowledge on both sides of the equation. He and Thomas Jefferson surreptitiously started one of the first partisan newspapers, the National Gazette, to attack their rival Alexander Hamilton and the policies of the Washington administration. Jefferson exhorted Madison to attack Hamilton under an assumed-name in the paper, saying, “For god’s sake, my dear sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”
Before the presidency, Washington declared, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter,” but the constant anti-administration attacks of the National Gazette drove him to distraction. When Secretary of War Henry Knox brought a copy of the paper into a cabinet meeting containing a broadside called “The Funeral of George Washington” which described a tyrannical executive on a guillotine, the president exploded in one of his rare but memorable rages.
“The President was much inflamed,” recounted Jefferson with a degree of detached amusement, “[and he] got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself; ran on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him; defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the government which was not done on the purest motives . . . that by God he had rather be in his grave than in the present situation; that he would rather be on his farm than to be made Emperor of the world.”
However infuriated Washington was, the notoriously self-monitoring first president took care not to display his anger in public. The first president understood the power of precedent and was determined to maintain the dignity of the office. It’s an example that most of his successors have tried to follow.
Washington’s critics were not isolated to one paper. The Aurora, published by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, delighted in personal attacks against the president, with Bache declaring it his mission to “destroy undue impressions in favor of Mr. Washington.” Among the president’s alleged sins were arrogance, stupidity, and a love of monarchy. He was called a lousy general, a lukewarm patriot, and an incompetent executive, intentionally undermining the U.S. Constitution. As one of their correspondents wrote: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by WASHINGTON! . . . Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind that the mask of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of a people.”
Though Washington steeled himself for the attacks, they took a toll. “He is also extremely affected by the attacks made and kept up on him in the public papers. I think he feels those things more than any person I ever yet met with,” Jefferson wrote Madison.
By the end of his second term, Washington routinely railed against his partisan newspaper persecutors, bitterly complaining in a final letter to Jefferson that he was “accused of being the enemy of one Nation, and subject to the influence of another” with every administration action twisted by “the grossest, most insidious mis-representations” “in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.”
But Washington always struggled to keep a sense of perspective, writing his friend Gouverneur Morris to express concern that “[f]rom the complexion of some of our News-papers Foreigners would be led to believe that inveterate political dissentions existed among us, and that we are on the very verge of disunion; but the fact is otherwise . . . but this kind of representations is an evil which must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free Press.”
While George Washington was often wounded by the press, he did not think he could or should declare war on it. He understood that dissent was essential to democracy and a free press was the best guarantee of our hard won liberty.
When Washington chose to write his Farewell Address to his “friends and fellow citizens,” he delivered the news in a newspaper. Crucially, he did not give the scoop to a long-standing partisan ally like John Fenno of the dependably Federalist Gazette of the United States. Instead he chose the independent-minded American Daily Advertiser later characterized as “never flaunting in the gaudy glare of party allurements; never stained with the ribaldry and virulence of party recrimination.” Its editorial view was independent and reflected the virtues of national unity that Washington wanted to embody and champion.
Independence is a necessary ideal for journalists. Our credibility is directly connected to our willingness to report the facts without fear or favor. But the illusion the Trump team seems to labor under is that only explicitly partisan press in their favor is fair and legitimate. By constantly attacking credible news organizations like CNN and the New York Times as “fake news” while elevating obscure hyper-partisan outlets and staffing the White House with Fox News talent and minions from Bannon’s avowedly alt-right (read “entho-nationalist”) Breitbart, they are moving the bar from partisan news to propagandistic outlets. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens made much the same point in his must-read speech at the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this past week: “He’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism... His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.”
In this environment, President Trump’s repeated insistence on repeating false statistics – from a fictitious crime epidemic to flat-out wrong assertions that he won an historic electoral landslide and lost the popular vote only because of millions of illegal voters – can simply be filed under the Orwellian label of “alternative facts.” And his supporters will register any reality-based fact-checks under the label “fake news.” The result is rebuilding the tower of Babel right here in America.
Their reasons might be as sinister as they seem or they simply could reflect the politics of personal resentment. Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka gave away the plot when he explained to radio host Michael Medved, that “there is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media…to attack a duly elected President in the second week of his term…and until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, 'fake news.’"
This administration’s attacks on the press might be driven by hurt feelings but their remedy is a dangerous assault against anyone who dares to disagree or try to hold them accountable.
That’s not fake news – that’s the basic role of the free press, the guarantor of our freedom as established by the founding fathers. Senator John McCain got it right when he stated on Meet the Press, “if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started.”