Three excited young women appear strategically for TV shots behind President Donald Trump at the podium as he addresses a fervid campaign rally in an airport hangar outside Pittsburgh Saturday.
They madly wave placards declaring “Women for Trump” and “Make America Strong Again” and jump up and down in pavlovian response to his cutting insults of the news media and whenever the crowd breaks out in chants of “CNN sucks!”
It is show time for the president-cum-reality star. He’s in full-throated attack on the journalists covering the event, finger-pointing at the collective “enemies of the people” – save Fox News.
This night Trump goes after Chuck Todd, amiable host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” calling him “sleepy eyes” and a “sleeping son-of-a-bitch” without explaining his use of the vulgarity. One can only guess Todd asks questions the president doesn’t consider “nice.”
The placard girls go aerial as the crowd roars with boos and hisses at the mention of the “fake news” CNN, NBC, MSNBC and Todd.
This is the state the free press in America finds itself at 14 months into Trump’s reign. The president of the United States delights in cursing and bashing news outlets that don’t pander to his outsized hubris about how great he is and how much he’s achieved. And never mind the truth.
It is an assault on the First Amendment to the Constitution, a document Trump swore to uphold when he took office.
Trump is a masterful propagandist, playing to his core whenever he needs reaffirmation. The more he pokes the press in the eye, the more his faithful love it – and trust in real journalism erodes. So too respect for the role of the media in our democracy.
This is Sunshine Week in America, an annual observance by news organizations honoring the value of a free press that informs you, the people, about what your government is up to and why you should care about your right to know.
There’s no jaundice to transparency. Journalists of all stripes strive to fulfill their duty to inform. Some do it with hard news and investigative reporting, others with analysis and opinion. Both forms are important to holding public officials and others with power and influence accountable.
Trump sees it differently. He wants the press to kowtow to his agenda, his view of the world. He can’t stomach journalism that reports his exaggerations, untruths and missteps. Or observations that take issue with his style and performance in office. He is only comfortable with press fawning and despotic control over his message, often spread on Twitter.
James Madison, author of the First Amendment, and the nation’s founders would doubtless call out Trump’s disrespect for the press freedom they created to keep presidents and other government officials honest in what they do and say.
They understood the populace cannot perform this duty on its own; that the role of the press is to serve as the public’s surrogate in keeping track of the functions, foibles and failures of government – and reporting them forthright to the governed.
They figured out that in self-government, the press is critical to public knowledge; a counterweight to disinformation. The latter leads to imperious rule, something the founders wanted to avoid at all cost given the experience with their British overlords.
Yet, here we are, more than 225 years after ratification of the First Amendment, fighting to preserve the media’s duty against an onslaught from our president as well as Russian hackers and other nefarious interests seeking to undermine the role of the press in our democratic system.
The antidote is the press and the public pledging allegiance to the First Amendment and the sunshine for which it stands.
Bill Ketter is the senior vice president of news for the CNHI group of newspapers and websites in 22 states. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.