Democracy in the United States is in danger. It’s not because black professional football players refuse to stand for the National Anthem or that fans of the game think those players should just shut up and play. It’s not that grieving parents call for sensible gun control when their children are slaughtered in their schools, or that gun enthusiasts oppose any restrictions on their right to bear arms. And it’s not because environmentalists sound the alarm about climate change, while skeptics question the impact of man-made pollutants on the environment.
These are simply differences of opinion, differences that can be debated and even settled through a spirit of compromise. But in a country that currently finds itself sharply divided, with both camps wary of the motives of the other, having a leader in the White House who has waged war on the free press is dangerous because it undermines the exchange of ideas that is essential to a functioning democracy.
President Donald Trump has made it a cornerstone of his administration to not only criticize the free press, but to attack journalists at every turn as “the enemy of the people” who trade in “fake news.”
This week, The Boston Globe asked editorial boards from across the country to join it in standing up against Trump’s relentless attacks on the free press. We proudly raise our voices along with theirs.
It would not be so bad if the president directed his scorn at all members of the media. After all, most presidents grow tired of the criticism they face as they try to do their jobs. But the president has repeatedly singled out only those media outlets that publish or air stories that disagree with his administration’s policies or challenge the outright lies he tells on an almost daily basis.
The problem is that many of the president’s most ardent supporters — who believed just about any damaging story about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama — now take at face value the president’s specious claims that that the press is nothing but a pack of liars trying to undermine his administration, as it reports on everything from the Mueller probe of possible Russian collusion in the 2016 election to the impact of steel tariffs on the economy.
In fact, a recent poll found that 26 percent of all Americans — and 43 percent of all Republicans — think that the president should have the authority to shut down “news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” That’s a scary thought, because shutting down the free press is typically one of the first steps of any authoritarian regime.
That’s not to say that the press is never wrong. It is, and when it is, it must be held accountable. But when the press is merely doing its job by probing whether the administration’s claims are accurate or not, it is performing a role that is vital to our democracy’s health. And if you don’t believe us, trust the founding fathers. They thought a free press was so important they included it among those rights protected by the First Amendment.