When did defending the First Amendment get so dangerous?
It’s no mistake the film The Post made its debut at a time when America’s press corps is in the direct line of fire. No, not in Iraq or Afghanistan but the war President Donald Trump has waged with the so-called crooked media. If history is a predictor, the Administration better take heed and tread lightly. First let me say, I sympathize with arguments on both sides of this coin. I’ve said in other posts, there are members of the media who are hellbent on taking down public officials for no other reason than political or personal vendetta. They do exist and I’ve worked alongside some of the ‘best’ of them. These folks don’t deserve to be called journalists. That said, their actions are not a justification for undoing every citizen’s Constitutionally protected right. Above all, they don’t deserve to be threatened or intimidated for doing their jobs – especially not by the leader of the free world. I know what it’s like to be attacked and assaulted as a journalist covering public corruption, it’s not only dangerous and degrading but illegal and never to be tolerated. Furthermore, officeholders swear an oath to serve and protect the public, including the press who act as representatives of said public. Yet, at no time in recent history has an Administration done more to tear down and undermine the basic tenets of a free press, in the name of combatting fake news, than this one. President Trump has not only gone after neutral, liberal and conservative journalists with equal vengeance but has made several veiled (and not so veiled) threats about silencing them. This is just as much if not more dangerous than a rogue journalist. Media watchdogs have taken notice. There is now a scorecard to keep track of the Administration’s violations. In its latest installment of the “First Amendment Report Card,” cataloging the five First Amendment freedoms “in the age of Trump,” the non-profit Newseum Institute gives the Administration a “modest” C+ (up from a C-). In a quote from the report the National Press Photographer’s Association said,
“We started it hoping and thinking that assaults on the First Amendment and our sensibilities could not get any worse, but they have.”
So while it’s bad, but not that bad, journos are on a tear and should be. Members of the press don’t take threats to free speech lightly, frankly neither do most Americans. It’s no wonder why The Post is capitalizing on the fray. In fact, the theatrical release was reportedly timed that way. The based-on-true-events film casts a piercing spotlight on the dangers and consequences of co-mingling (i.e. corrupting) media coverage with political favors and favoritism. The movie recounts what we all now know about the Pentagon Papers, the cover up and mass manipulation of facts regarding the Vietnam War by the Johnson Administration that carried over into several Democrat and Republican Administrations. It is not a understatement to say that it’s like deja vu all over again. Thus, anyone who supports free speech (I think we all do) should be concerned. This is not the time to draw political lines in the sand. It’s a call for the country to be unified and resolute in an effort to protect personal freedoms. To quote the movie quoting the Supreme Court’s 1971 ruling:
“The press is to serve the governed, not the governor.”
Whether you love or hate the media isn’t the issue, freedom of speech doesn’t just cover journalists, it covers every citizen. Permissible degradation or a gradual stripping away of these rights for one segment of society (i.e. the press) opens the door for government to apply the same standard to all segments of society (i.e. John Q. Public). Similarly, those in the media must be careful not to be corrupted or tainted by influence, but to “serve the governed” without respect to who they have chosen to govern. When the press has a lower approval rating than officeholders, it stands to reason there’s a real disconnect, and reporters need to reevaluate their motives. An intentional point The Post recounts is how public support favored the media’s right to release the Pentagon Papers over the government’s argument to prevent them from being published. Nowadays, the opposite holds true. The people have little if any confidence in accurate reporting by the press. Therefore, consideration must be given to the fact that the same public majority who voted in President Trump will reflexively side with government over the media. This could be problematic for the industry in the long term, establishing a precedent that elevates perception over reality.
So, let’s put the issue into perspective. Ultimately, all Presidents run afoul of the press during their term – it’s inherent. Most of the time, the coverage is pretty fair, sometimes it’s not. At no time is it to be influenced by bullying. Journalists only grow emboldened, never deterred by threats. To be sure, what now seems a temporary retreat by the Administration will eventually give way to more shots fired. It’s a battle likely to get bloodier before it gets better, leave a lot more casualties in its wake and if we’re not careful, set us on a path to state sanctioned censorship.