President Trump has incessantly focused his ire on the mainstream (i.e. real) media, even more than he has assailed the courts, the rule of law and Democrats. “Enemy of the people” and “fake news” have become familiar chants for Trump and his cultists. This should surprise no one. It’s what autocratic leaders do: They bully, delegitimize and impair an independent press as a means of husbanding their power and disabling critics who would hold them accountable for their conduct.
As Yascha Mounk, an expert on the rise of authoritarianism and decline in democracy, has explained: “The point of democracy is to empower people to hold elites accountable when they aren’t being sufficiently responsive to their interests. So lots of democratic politicians run on saying that elites have become remote and that they plan to serve the forgotten people. … So what defines populists — and makes them dangerous — is the claim that anybody who disagrees with them does not have a legitimate role to play in democratic politics.” And whoever introduces facts at odds with the regime’s propaganda must also be illegitimate — or “fake.”
In its Freedom of the Press 2017 report, the nonpartisan Freedom House warned:
A greater danger is that the United States will stop being a model and aspirational standard for other countries. Protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide; indeed, it is a cornerstone of global democracy. When political leaders in the United States lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same. When U.S. leaders step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill.
The sobering alternative model, seen in authoritarian countries, is to extinguish press freedom, the better to allow a political party, movement, or leader to control information—and to use that control to retain power indefinitely. Further weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for democracy everywhere.
The silver lining to this dark story of unprecedented assaults on the press by the White House and his enablers in what basically serves as state media (e.g. RT, Fox News, Breitbart) is that the real press is holding up well in the eyes of their fellow Americans. The latest Quinnipiac poll reports:
American voters trust the news media more than President Trump 54 – 30 percent to tell the truth about important issues. Republicans trust Trump more than the media 72 – 12 percent, the only group that trusts Trump more. White voters with no college degree are divided as 45 percent trust Trump more and 43 percent trust the media more.
The news media is an important part of democracy, 69 percent of voters say, as 21 percent say the media is the enemy of the people. Republicans say 47 – 31 percent the media is the enemy of the people rather than an important part of democracy, the only listed group to feel that way.
Moreover, in many of Trump’s fights with the media — e.g., the Russia investigation is a “hoax” — voters overwhelmingly side with the factual account (i.e. no, it’s not a hoax) presented by mainstream media rather than the rantings from Trump and his media pawns in the Fox News nighttime lineup.
As if it were some Maoist exercise in self-criticism, plenty of media critics would say that the media is failing and must change how it reports on Trump. Really?
There is always room for self-improvement, but constant fact-checking, self-contained headlines (“Trump falsely claimed …”), dogged investigative reporting and a track record of accuracy (e.g. Michael Cohen did plead guilty, Paul Manafort was convicted) have served the media well. It’s not the media’s job to lure Trumpists out of their cult, but rather, to inform and earn the trust of those open to learning about reality. So far, like the courts, the media is doing its part to stand up to Trump.