Donald Trump has repeatedly demonized the news media, aka the free press, labeling them “fake news” and even “the enemy of the American people.” Last month, Trump’s press secretary excluded respected members of the mainstream press — The New York Times, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Politico, the Hill and Buzzfeed — from a press briefing. These actions are not only un-American, as CNN’s Jake Tapper appropriately dubbed them, they are extremely dangerous.
To understand the gravity of the threat, recall the words of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson recognized that “our liberty depends on the Freedom of the Press, and that cannot be limited without [our liberty] being lost.” Jefferson also famously quipped “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights on which our Bill of Rights is modeled, similarly proclaimed that “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” And James Madison said, in the same breath that he castigated the “abuses” of the press, that “to the press alone . . . the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Interpreting these men’s blueprint for our democracy, the United States Supreme Court observed that “The Constitution specifically selected the press . . . to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs.” Thus, the Court recognized, “the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials . . . responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve.”
Trump and his team have co-opted the term “fake news” in an effort to lump together credible and well-respected press entities with the Russian-backed promulgators of actual “fake news” reports that were posted on social media sites during the campaign. Among the most well-known (and widely circulated) examples of such completely baseless “reports” were bogus stories alleging that Hillary Clinton ran a child exploitation ring out of a DC-area pizza joint, that the Pope had endorsed Trump and that an indictment had been drawn up for Hillary Clinton.
To thereafter attach the “fake news” label to unfavorable but fact-based reports concerning former NSA Chief Mike Flynn’s and other Trump campaign staffers’ repeated contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, is calculated to achieve only one purpose: to cause the American people to distrust the information they receive from the news media. “Believe me” Trump says. What he means is “Believe only me.”
This is not the first time that political leaders have used this ploy. Germany’s propaganda minister in the 1930s, Joseph Goebbels, famously used the term “Lügenpresse” or “lying press” — as did Hitler at his mass rallies — to persuade his followers to disregard what the papers were reporting and pledge their unwavering loyalty to the version of reality (“alternative facts”) that the Führer uttered.
Responsible and democracy-loving public officials should, or dare I say, must, reserve the “fake news” label exclusively for the type of garbage for which it was created and has come to be understood: complete and utter fabrications that have no basis in fact, and no legitimate sources to support the published allegations. That label is obviously inappropriate for the reports published in The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and other legitimate news outlets that have adopted, and strenuously adhere to, well-established canons of journalistic ethics.
The multiple anonymous sources in The New York Times’ report about Trump campaign operatives’ contacts with Russian intelligence officials may turn out to have overstated the actual facts. But even that potential outcome does not render such a well-sourced news article “fake news.” It is very real news that credible sources within U.S. intelligence agencies are making these claims and assert that there is written documentation to substantiate them.
By all means, government officials should rebut reported factual errors with evidence that disproves those errors, if such evidence exists. But applying the “fake news” label to the legitimate press should be reserved to foreign dictators who seek to make their voice the only one their subjects will believe. Such Goebbels-inspired tactics have no place in our democracy.
Steve Zansberg is a First Amendment lawyer in Denver. This column first ran as a guest editorial in the Grand Junction Sentinel.