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Chris Honoré: ‘Fake news’ and the First Amendment

Recently an article appeared in the New York Times in which Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the human rights high commissioner of the United Nations, offered the opinion that Donald Trump’s repeated denunciations of some media outlets as “fake news” could amount to incitement to violence and had potentially dangerous consequences even outside the United States.

According to the NYT, Hussein was reacting to Trump’s comments made at a rally in Phoenix in which he spoke of the “crooked media.” The president had pointed to the journalists and cameras in the back of the venue and denigrated them for their dishonesty (“very bad people”). The audience, with a rising anger, booed the press while supporting Trump’s characterization.

Hussein commented, “It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only a cornerstone of the Constitution but very much something the United States defended over the years, is now itself under attack from the president himself. It’s a stunning turnaround.”

Turnaround indeed. But I find that I am no longer surprised at what Trump is capable of saying from a lectern or in a tweet, including referring to the press as “the enemy of the people.” However, I find myself unable to react similarly to the rally audiences that the president draws, their uncritical embracing of the man and his assertions chilling at best. How is it possible that a man such as Hussein, a Jordanian, can know unequivocally that our press is indeed essential to our democracy while those present at Trump’s rallies seem willing to discard the First Amendment without hesitation? To me it is disheartening in the extreme.

In fact, let me go one step further. Over the past nine months the one institution that has robustly stepped forward has been the press. Most especially print journalism. Newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times have been relentless in their investigative reporting. They have written thousands of words about the role that the Russians played in our presidential election; they have covered the chaos of the White House exhaustively, including the possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The stories written are far too numerous to even begin to count, but what should be self evident — what is self-evident to Hussein — is how important our free press is to us and our system of government. Keep in mind that the press has met constant resistance from the White House and from members of the Republican Congress and yet reporters have managed to tell their stories, some with triple sources, as carefully as is possible.

At the time that Hussein made his comments, Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, put out a memo that said, “We believe in free press and think it is an important part of our democracy, but the press also has a big responsibility to the American people to be truthful. Their job is to report the news, not create it.”

Ah, yes, “not create it,” a neatly phrased passive-aggressive nugget, those last three words which have embedded in them Trump’s abiding hostility toward the media, and said without inserting “fake news,” yet saying exactly that.

Just recently, in a response to a well-sourced NBC story about Trump wanting to increase America’s nuclear arsenal tenfold, he tweeted, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their license? Bad for country.”

Later that same day, during a Q/A with the press, Trump said he though it was “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write. People should look into that.” He also tweeted, “Why isn’t Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up — FAKE!”

When Pulitzers are awarded I vote to give one to the press, en masse. It is the one institution — also known as the Fourth Estate — that continues to stand guard over our democracy.

— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.