Donald Trump waged an astonishing war against the press in the lead up to his unlikely victory in November, labeling them "scum", "lowlifes" and "enemies". He threatened to sue various newspapers and promised to “open up” libel laws should he be elected.
In response to this assault on the fourth estate, the Washington Post's executive editor Marty Baron delivered some much needed words of advice for members of the press when he received the Hitchens Prize in New York earlier this week. Baron urged the media to stand strong in the face of threats from the incoming administration and to simply continue to doing their jobs. He said:
After his election—in the midst of protests against him— Donald Trump resorted to Twitter to accuse the media of inciting violence when, of course, there had been no incitement whatsoever by anyone. The other night, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour eloquently explained the gravity of such deliberately false accusations emanating from a future head of state. She was speaking when she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Postcard from the world,” she said, “This is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al . . . First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating—until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison—and then who knows?”
When the press is under attack, we cannot always count on our nation’s institutions to safeguard our freedoms—not even the courts. At times throughout our history, they have shamefully failed to do so—whether it was the Sedition Act of 1798 under President John Adams, harshly repressive Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson in the context of World War I, or the McCarthy Era that still serves to remind us of what comes of a dishonest and reckless search for enemies. The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work. Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn? If so, what do we do? The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.
Most poignantly, Baron defined doing journalism as telling the truth "as nearly as the truth may be ascertained,” and stated that "If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us. Nor, in my view, should they."
Sadly, Trump's presidency almost guarantees disaster on many, many fronts. And as our own Justin Rosario pointed out today, the likelihood of a terrorist attack on American soil incurring a total descent into fascism is not only a possibility, but a serious probability. We laugh at Trump and this threats now, but given the right circumstances, his bullying behavior would lay waste to the values of American democracy. We saw this happen rapidly under the Bush administration after 9/11, and one shudders to think of what Trump and his cabal of sociopaths would be capable of if there were a comparable tragedy.
In dark times, a free and independent press that does not fear authority is vital to maintaining the fabric of a civil society. Journalists must prepare themselves to operate in a completely different climate than the one they have grown accustomed to in recent years, and the signs are it won't be friendly.
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