By Jack Zaleski
Attacks on media are old news. They go back as far as the era of Thomas Jefferson, who was arguably the most passionate freedom of the press champion among the Founders. Yet, even Jefferson criticized newspapers when they were used against him by his political enemies. History is replete with examples. Abraham Lincoln was savaged by both Southern and Northern newspapers before and during the Civil War. He had little good to say about journalists. When CBS’s Walter Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson famously said he’d lost middle America. He had. Richard Nixon’s attempts to intimidate the press during the Pentagon Papers episode and the Watergate crisis are legendary. He hated the press.
But there are differences between then and now. The current occupant of the White House and his allies are leading attacks on “mainstream media” in which the mantra is “fake news.” Truth has been the victim.
A campaign to destroy the credibility of a constitutionally mandated institution — the free press — is an assault on a foundational element of the republic. When attacks on media become pervasive and ubiquitous — because they are enabled by officials in the highest levels of government — the erosion of trust in a free press threatens democratic values. A healthy democracy requires an informed electorate. If the people of the nation come to believe that traditional news reporting and commentary are “fake news,” then the commonality of purpose that binds a nation together is at risk.
LBJ and Nixon were furious with the media, but they did not dismiss reporting that put them in a bad light as fake news. Indeed, for most presidents, the news was anything but fake. It was real and truthful. It changed the course of their presidencies, and thus the historical narrative. All presidents criticized the press, but they did not try to systematically smother a fundamental constitutional mandate with a drumbeat of fake news accusations. Until now.
The press is responding with some of its best work. Great newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, break relevant news every day. CNN, NBC and the PBS News Hour raise the bar with top-tier investigative reporting.
A free press is not an academic construct. It is not a cliche. It is an essential cog in the messy machinery that governs the nation. An official mugging of independent media is in effect an attack on free people.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as editorial page editor of The Forum newspaper of Fargo, N.D. He continues to write a Sunday column. A native of New Britain, Ct., he was educated in New Britain schools and at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. He is recipient of several writing honors, the most recent the Herman Roe Editorial Writing Award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. He is on the board of North Dakota State University’s Northern Plains Ethics Institute, which sponsors seminars, papers and public panel