“It’s a dangerous time to be a journalist.” NPR’s “Up First” podcast ended the discussion of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged murder with this remark. All around the world, journalists have been dealing with physical attacks, as well as attacks on their journalistic integrity. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 41 journalists have faced physical attacks in 2018, and five have been killed. With Khashoggi’s murder headlining the news, and President Donald Trump’s steady stream of insults aimed at the free press while on his midterm tours, this attack on journalistic integrity and the free press is gaining ground and making life more dangerous for journalists and civilians alike.
Since Trump took office in 2016, the idea of “fake news” has become a prevalent topic in politics. While the term fake news is not one of Trump’s own invention, nor is he even the first politician to use it in such a way as to attack the press, it has taken on almost a second definition. According to a study by researchers Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Lucas Graves, most scholars and professionals agree that fake news should be, “Associated with misinformation from different sources, including journalists. Seen as distinguishable from news primarily by degree,” usually in relation to perceptions of satire, poor journalism, propaganda, advertising and false news. However, it is now being “weaponized by critics of the news media as well as by critics of platform companies” to invalidate certain news sources, the current instigator being Trump.
Time and time again, Trump makes remarks about the press falsely attacking him, naming them a danger to society. Feeling attacked due to being under the constant microscope of the press, Trump chose to return fire to one of the most important aspects of a free democracy. He has decided that he doesn’t like journalists telling the public the facts about what his administration is doing and that he will do his best to invalidate these facts by preaching to his followers that it is all fake.
“The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” Trump said at a rally in Wisconsin while he was on the midterm tour. What Trump is failing to grasp is that the press has absolutely no obligation to the government. They have an obligation to report the truth, no matter how it may portray the president, government officials or any other figure. Just because Trump doesn’t like what the media is saying about him doesn’t make it false, and it certainly doesn’t mean he should be encouraging hateful acts toward journalists who are just doing their job.
The press is one of the most important checks on the government. Its role in society is to report the truth, and with that, hold the government accountable. Instead of understanding the importance of free press and taking their criticisms as an opportunity to improve his presidency, Trump has instead attempted to undermine the importance of a driving force of American democracy, which poses a danger to society. Labeling the press as “the enemy of the people” is a fear-mongering tactic used by an unpopular president who wants to hide any unflattering portrayals of his presidency and personality from the public. And yet, it’s kind of working.
According to a survey published by CBS, 91 percent of strong Trump supporters consider the information he delivers to be accurate, but only 11 percent trust the media. So when Trump spews hate about The New York Times and other mainstream, historically reliable media, unfortunately, people listen. This is certainly evident in the abusive treatment of journalists that has been spreading all over the world. Khashoggi is only one example of how dangerous it is to be a journalist in this current climate. Leaders everywhere and in all types of government, from Syria to Venezuela and from authoritarian to populist, are following Trump’s lead and attacking the free press. When other leaders see the president of the land of the free attack one of the fundamental aspects of its freedom, it seems to give them permission to do the same.
Even other U.S. government officials are jumping on the anti-press bandwagon. Trump actually praised U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for bodyslamming a reporter. I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that would be considered civil abuse, which is illegal. While this is terrible, considering our President’s track record, it’s not surprising. What is more terrifying is the audience’s response. After his statement, they cheered and began jeering at other reporters in the audience, one man even re-enacting a body slam and making threatening hand gestures. Some of us try to give ourselves peace of mind by convincing ourselves that Trump is only one heretic and that most rational people don’t actually believe the absurdities he constantly spouts. This attack and response, however, reveals the terrifying truth that Trump is not alone in his hatred, and that we are all in grave danger.
Journalism is absolutely essential to a free country and an accountable government. We are incredibly lucky to live in a country where the freedom of the press is a constitutional right no matter who is in power or what they say about it. But a president who constantly threatens and degrades the media is not only misguided but also dangerous. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is dangerous to be a journalist. But that is why it’s important. Journalists have the power to generate change and have been using this power since the founding of this country. From high school newspapers to The New York Times, every level of journalism plays a role in making change, whether it be at a high school or in the White House. We cannot allow one asinine blip on this country’s timeline destroy a fundamental part of our democracy. We cannot be considered the land of the free if we are not free to speak our minds.