More than 100 U.S. newspapers are publishing editorials today about what The Boston Globe has called “the dirty war against a free press.”
For a newspaper, criticism comes with the job. We report on thorny issues, issues on which people have divergent views, and those views often color the way they read the news. We have come to understand that nearly everyone who reads our newspapers believes they can edit them better than we do. (In truth, it’s harder than it looks.)
But never has the American press been attacked the way Donald Trump attacks — the drumbeat of criticism, much of it pulled out of thin air, based on “facts” that don’t exist.
It’s not the criticism that bothers us so much; it’s the effect of the president’s allegations on public debate.
In our American democracy, the free press is an independent third party that examines how well public institutions do their jobs. We ask difficult questions and explain to the public why things are the way they are. After all, our government and our other public institutions are supposed to serve the people’s interests, and if they’re failing, we want to find out why, and what can be done about it.
That’s why President Trump’s characterization of the press as “the enemy of the people” — a term used by Lenin and Stalin in turning Russia into a terror-stricken dictatorship — is so absurd, and dangerous.
The political health of our nation hinges on solid information about government and our other institutions. The principle of a democracy is that informed voters make good decisions, and good decisions lead to good government and a fair and just society.
Trump’s definition of “fake news” is anything that’s critical of him, and he has applied it to every major news organization except Fox News, which regularly beats the drum for reactionary conservative thought and from which he seems to draw most of his weirdest policy proposals.
This problem is compounded by Trump’s habitual lying. He lies about everything — the economy, the size of his inauguration crowd, the 2016 election results, trade with China, the size of his tax cut.
In the past, presidents have stretched the truth or spun the facts to make themselves look good. But when it comes to outright fabrications, Trump is in a league all his own. Did you ever think you’d have to fact-check literally every single thing a president says? Or that the fact-checkers would have to struggle to keep up with the pace of his lying? In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false claims, according to The Washington Post fact-checking team. In just the last six months, Trump picked up the pace, telling 4,229 whoppers. In June and July, he averaged 16 false claims a day.
July 5 was a record-setter for Trump: He made 98 factual assertions at a campaign-style rally in Montana; The Post fact-checkers found that 76 percent of them were “false, misleading or unsupported by evidence.”
Tragically for our nation, Trump’s day-in, day-out attacks on the free press are undermining public confidence in the nation’s sources of information, leading to a situation in which there is no agreement on what is true and factual.
So, many Americans no longer debate facts; instead we get exaggeration, personal attacks, doctrinaire stances and a nation that is badly fractured.
This, in a nation whose motto is E Pluribus Unum — “Out of many, one.”
Newspapers are often the court of last resort.
That’s certainly true at our newspapers — the Stowe Reporter, Waterbury Record, News & Citizen of Morrisville, Shelburne News and The Citizen of Charlotte/Hinesburg.
We promise an honest report of the news; we question authority on the public’s behalf; we look out for the little guy, people who have no power of their own; we try to hold up a mirror to the community so people can see it, flaws and all, and perhaps be moved to take action.
A few years ago, Lamoille Community Food Share — which feeds hundreds of hungry families every year — was running out of money. We published a story about the organization’s plight, and its work, and the next day a reader handed Food Share a $5,000 check.
Informed citizens make good decisions.
What happens now? If our democracy is to survive, we need to right the ship. Americans of all political stripes need to agree on one thing: Our public debate has become toxic, to the point where it’s impossible to achieve consensus on virtually anything.
The solution can begin with the midterm elections Nov. 6: Vote for bridge-builders, people who can speak honestly not only with supporters, but also with opponents and critics, and have demonstrated their ability to negotiate solutions to chronic problems.
If we can’t start talking with one another again and facing up to our national problems, we can start planning the funeral for democracy.