JFK’S defense of press freedom is antidote to Trump’s abusive authoritarianism

On the 22nd August 2018 The Cap Times editorial reports

These are tough times for journalism in America.

Newspapers have been folding, newsrooms have been thinning out, editors and reporters are being laid off at alarming rates. Hedge-fund owners are sacrificing local journalism to pad their profits. Mergers and acquisitions are dumbing down print, broadcast, and online media in pursuit of a one-size-fits-all bottom line. Federal policies are promoting consolidation and profiteering, while failing to adequately fund public and community media.

But newspapers remain committed to the defense of freedom of the press — and to the democracy that is underpinned by speak-truth-to-power journalism. Last week, The Capital Times joined newspapers across the country in a national show of solidarity with the First Amendment.

It was a necessary response to Donald Trump’s disdain for the basic premises of the American experiment, which he regularly evidences with crude attacks on journalists and journalism.

At a time when America needs to be urgently concerned with the work of renewing and extending the promise of a free press, Trump is making a bad situation worse. He has empowered a wrecking crew at the Federal Communications Commission, where his appointees are working overtime to scrap neutrality and protections for media competition and diversity.

But Trump is doing even more damage with his steady stream of angry pronouncements regarding specific reporters and media outlets, and his dismissive attitude toward the role that journalism plays in maintaining a free and functional society.

At a time when America needs leadership on behalf of press freedom, Trump is actively steering the discourse in the wrong direction with his claims that “very unpatriotic” journalists are putting “the lives of many” at risk by reporting on government affairs.

It was honest concern about the president’s beligerent attitude toward journalists and journalism that led The Capital Times and newspapers across the country to heed the call of The Boston Globe for a show of editorial-page engagement last Thursday.

Newspapers spoke in different voices.

But, as Cap Times readers know, this newspaper shouts whenever powerful figures abuse their positions.

And, surely, Donald Trump is abusing his position.

We do not believe that the right response to this president’s authoritarian tendencies is feel-good pontificating that merely begs the president to be nice to journalists.

What is required is something far more specific, and far more intellectually and politically honest, than a simple assertion that journalists are not the enemy of the people. There has to be a renewal of the historic understanding of journalism as a check and balance on all power: Republican and Democratic, private and public, political and corporate. This reassertion must be rooted in an essential recognition that no president who takes seriously an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution would say what Trump is saying. But it must go deeper than that.

When John F. Kennedy addressed the American Newspaper Publishers Association just two months after he was sworn in as the 35th president in January 1961, he explained: “I have selected as the title of my remarks tonight ‘The President and the Press.’ Some may suggest that this would be more naturally worded ‘The President Versus the Press.’ But those are not my sentiments tonight.”

Kennedy went on to tell the assembled publishers, “(My) purpose here tonight is not to deliver the usual assault on the so-called one-party press. On the contrary, in recent months I have rarely heard any complaints about political bias in the press except from a few Republicans. Nor is it my purpose tonight to discuss or defend the televising of presidential press conferences. I think it is highly beneficial to have some 20,000,000 Americans regularly sit in on these conferences to observe, if I may say so, the incisive, the intelligent and the courteous qualities displayed by your Washington correspondents.”

Kennedy was poking fun at the White House correspondents of his day, who were generally incisive and intelligent, but not always as courteous as presidents prefer.

Yet the point of Kennedy’s speech was a serious one. He had come, as a new president, to talk about the relationship between his administration and the media. He acknowledged “the dilemma faced by a free and open society in a cold and secret war,” and he spoke honestly of his hope for a measure of restraint in the coverage of particularly sensitive global disputes. But he also said: “The question is for you alone to answer. No public official should answer it for you. No governmental plan should impose its restraints against your will.”

Yes, Kennedy suggested, the administration’s views might clash with those of its inquisitors. But, he added, “I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers — I welcome it. This administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

That’s the opposite of Trump’s approach.

But the opposite of Trump is what American needs now.

In these most challenging of times, honorable leaders of all parties and all ideologies must recognize, as did JFK: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply ‘give the public what it wants’ — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

Read original article in The Cap Times