Editorial: A threat to our basic freedoms

Thomas Jefferson famously once said if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government he wouldn’t hesitate to choose newspapers without government.

Like many of our Founding Fathers, Jefferson feared the possibility of a tyrant taking control of the government and believed a free press was essential to keeping the government in check.

That’s why freedom of the press is part of the very First Amendment to the Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

We wonder, though, whether Jefferson and the Founding Fathers imagined someone like Donald Trump heading our government.

During the campaign, Trump threatened to toughen the country’s libel laws in response to criticism directed at him. But, apparently, not his opponent.

And as president, Trump has imposed tariffs on newsprint that threaten the survival of an industry already financially challenged by the advent of the internet.

Trump has not sought to ban newspapers or other news organizations. But, instead, he has slandered the media with calls of “fake news.”

Borrowing a phrase used by Russian dictator Josef Stalin, Trump labeled the news media “the enemy of the American people” a month after taking the oath of office.

Trump has called news accounts “fake news,” “fake stories,” “fake media” or “fake polls”  more than 400 times. He has singled out individual reporters, calling them “dangerous and sick” on Twitter and at events filled with angry supporters.

New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens recently described Trump’s anti-media words as “incitement.” He joined a growing number of people who have expressed concern for the safety and even lives of journalists.

Last week, at a political rally in Pennsylvania, Trump told his audience that the media was “fake, fake disgusting news.”

And at a recent meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Trump advised veterans: “Don’t believe what you’re reading or seeing.”

There is no parallel to this in the history of the United States. But there is an unnerving parallel to despots throughout history.

Why does Trump do this?

CBS News’ Lesley Stahl said Trump recently offered her and her boss a simple answer.

“‘I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you,’” Stahl quoted Trump as saying.

This should concern every American, regardless of party affiliation. Putting the truth in the hands of one man undermines the public’s ability to make an informed decision on choosing leaders and the policies they offer. It is a threat to our very democracy.

Especially with a president who shows little regard for the truth.

Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, who has chronicled Trump’s false or misleading statements since he took office, put the number at 4,229 at the beginning of the month. That’s more than 7.5 false or misleading statements a day.

Trump has yet to intimidate the media using this technique.

But he has persuaded enough Republican voters to strike fear in House Republicans, who have abdicated their constitutional responsibility to provide oversight of the administration.

These attacks are not limited to the media.

He has tried to discredit pollsters who publish results he doesn’t like, the Congressional Budget Office in response to data he doesn’t like, law enforcement officials when they pursue allegations he doesn’t like and the courts when they issue rulings he doesn’t like.

Trump’s anger with the media and the legal system has in recent months become particularly focused on special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation.

In a recent tweet, the president referred to Mueller’s probe as a “rigged witch hunt” and an “illegal scam.”

The tweet exemplifies the danger posed by Trump’s attacks on the special counsel and the press that covers him.

Mueller is investigating a sophisticated attack on the 2016 presidential election by Russia, a foreign adversary.

The United States has already indicted more than two dozen Russians for their involvement in the conspiracy to undermine U.S. elections – a charge supported by every single intelligence official in the Trump administration.

Indictments have also been issued to five Americans – four of whom have already pleaded guilty, including Trump’s first national security adviser. His former campaign manager is currently on trial.

And serious questions have been raised about the role of Trump campaign officials in this assault on our electoral system all the way up to the president.

This is what Trump calls a witch hunt and blasts the media for reporting. Do we really not want to get to the bottom of this? Do we really not want newspapers to report on it?

For doing its job, the press is now under siege like no other time in our nation’s history.

Newspapers across the county, ourselves included, have responded this week with a call for Americans to come together in support of the First Amendment and a free press.

That support should be expressed loudly and clearly.

Elected officials regardless of their position, whether in the U.S. Senate or on a local school board, should be asked where they stand on supporting a free press.

And voters should use their rights as citizens to defeat those unwilling to support our basic freedoms at the ballot box.

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