Throughout American history, lawmakers have tried to limit the free press. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of President John Adams to the Supreme Court case of New York Times Company v. Sullivan in the 1960’s, American free press has always prevailed. Yet, on the first full day of the Trump administration, top aids have already threatened that process.
A free and accurate press has been a hallmark of American democracy, protected as one of our fundamental rights. It is an important branch of a system meant to represent the people. When the free press is threatened, our nation’s democratic process suffers. Lack of information and infringements on free press and freedom of speech are reminiscent of totalitarianism and fascism, systems the United States has always fought against.
As student journalists, we are very concerned about the direction our nation is heading in terms of limiting the free press. Recently, the free American media has been the subject of a constant barrage of negative comments and insinuations from the top office of government. Our free press has been characterized as “dishonest” and “corrupt” when there is no evidence to support these statements; they amount to nothing more than childish name-calling.
However false these statements may be, they are still harmful to the idea of free press overall. When the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, gives false information to the press before refusing to answer questions, he purposely limits the ability of the press to report on issues that are relevant to the nation and to their readers. This amounts to censorship of information that should be free and readily available to the public.
This spirit of censorship has continued. Trump also banned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from making any official comment, after he froze EPA grants that fund projects and hundreds of jobs throughout the United States. Going beyond limiting the press, Trump has now taken to limiting the ability of government agencies to communicate with the public.
In Trump’s speech at CIA headquarters, he referenced his “running war” with the nation’s media, whom he also referred to as “dishonest.” This came before he echoed the same falsehoods about his inauguration’s crowd size as Spicer.
But this didn’t stop top Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway from appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where she told host Chuck Todd that “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
The problem is, facts are a zero-sum game. They do not have alternatives; any “alternative facts” are simply falsehoods.
When powerful political figures, especially our own president, present fallacies as facts, they undermine confidence in the American media. Such a thing is dangerous and allows lies to become the standard of information.
We have seen Trump’s disregard for the truth throughout the 2016 presidential election, but as president, he must be held to the highest standard. Lying straight to the American public about something so simple and easily checked as inauguration crowd numbers is baffling; name-calling the media and referring to his relationship with it as “a running war” is even more troubling.
While Trump may disagree with media coverage of his presidency and campaign, it does not give him grounds to brand the entire press as liars. Such rhetoric undermines trust in the media in a thinly-veiled defense of Trump himself. He is delegitimizing the press more than any modern-day American politician and simultaneously spewing, and allowing his administration to repeat, flat-out lies.
In this day and age, we have information more readily available than ever before. With this ability comes responsibility. Each of us is responsible for informing ourselves so that we are armed with the truth. If we believe the lies that come from unreliable sources, even if those sources are our commander in chief, then we are no better than sheep, simply following a leader who actively tries to limit our exposure to accurate information.