McCain is right about that much, at least. The founders' desire to prevent the government from eroding personal freedom explains why journalism is one of the few professions explicitly protected by the Constitution. But the now-tiresome insinuations that Trump somehow aspires to a scrutiny-free dictatorship are belied not only by his own stated commitment to a free press but by the same Fox poll's conclusion that 55 percent believe it's better for the country if the media "cover the president aggressively."
Trump's criticism of "fake news"
is transparently self-serving but resonates with Americans who recognize the fearless but fair journalism they want is too seldom delivered.
Wikileaks' documentation of collusion between journalists and Hillary Clinton's campaign has been followed since Inauguration Day by stories about alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, the intelligence community's refusal to share information with the new president and plans to use the National Guard to enforce the Southern border — all of dubious accuracy (although it is refreshing to see that, after decades of romanticizing the Soviet Union, liberals have developed a mistrust of Russian dictators).
On the other hand, MSNBC's Chris Matthews was hardly unique in his admission that candidate Barack Obama gave him a "thrill going up my leg." A Pew Research Center poll has found that members of the American media are far more liberal than the nation as a whole, with 34 percent of the national press calling itself liberal and just 7 percent conservative.
Where the relative handful of conservative media were concerned, however, Obama was downright Trumpian. He regularly attacked Fox News, at one point chillingly suggesting "we're going to have to change how the media reports on these issues." He criticized talk radio and threatened journalists such as James Rosen of Fox News and Jim Risen of The New York Times. And, of course, President Bill Clinton infamously blamed talk radio for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
The irony in the Trump blowback is that, when it comes to stifling free speech, no one does it better or more often than the political left — which used to condemn efforts to silence opponents as "McCarthyism" but today demands stores drop merchandise labeled "Trump," "safe spaces" on campuses and turns on even liberal icons like Bill Maher or musician Bono for daring to talk to conservatives.
But whether from the left or right, the attempt to silence opponents or the press poses danger. "Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being poured into that vehicle," Trump told a cheering crowd Saturday in Florida, quoting Thomas Jefferson. But when 10 percent of Americans tell Fox they trust neither the president nor the media, such cynicism cannot be a good thing. What happens when a politician deserves support or the press uncovers a legitimate scandal?
That Fox News poll was predictably split along party lines, with 81 percent of Republicans trusting the administration over the media and 79 percent of Democrats preferring the media. But one important conclusion was bipartisan: 71 percent want Trump to be more careful with his words.
He could start by criticizing the media only when it is justified by specific actions. The media should do no less by doing everything humanly possible to curb its obvious biases in favor of factual journalism that holds all politicians equally accountable. Only then will Americans embrace something else that Jefferson said:
"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. 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."
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.