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Monday, February 20, 2017

Freedom of the Press -- President Trump's "Enemy"



Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This clause is generally understood as a means to prevent the government from interfering with differing opinions. The right guarantees freedom to gather, publish, and distribute information and ideas without government restriction, and it encompasses freedom from prior restraints on publication and freedom from censorship. It protects the freedom of an institution as well as that of individuals. 
 
The First Amendment reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law… abridging the Freedom of Speech, or of the press.” 
 
The courts have long struggled to determine whether the Framers of the Constitution intended to differentiate press freedom from speech freedom. Most have concluded that freedom of the press derives from freedom of speech. Although some cases and some legal scholars, including Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court, have advocated special press protections distinct from those accorded to speech, most justices believe that the Freedom of the Press Clause has no significance independent of the Freedom of Speech Clause.

(“Freedom of the Press. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com. 2017.)

With unlimited access to information, journalists serve as the eyes, ears, and voice of the public. The press is an important force in the democratic system of checks and balances. From network news to investigative reports to the front-line accounts of embedded journalists in foreign wars, the press supplies the masses with timely, important news.

President Donald Trump has recently tweeted: "The FAKE NEWS media (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!" In an all-out attack on the Freedom of the Press, the president is accusing American journalists of being traitors. The BBC responded … 
 
Being branded an "enemy of the people" by the likes of Stalin or Mao brought at best suspicion and stigma, at worst hard labor or death.

Now the chilling phrase - which is at least as old as Emperor Nero, who was called "hostis publicus,” enemy of the public, by the Senate in AD 68 - is making something of a comeback...

The US president's use of 'enemies of the people' raises unavoidable echoes of some of history's most murderous dictators. 
 
Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, out-of-favour artists and politicians were designated enemies and many were sent to hard labor camps or killed. Others were stigmatized and denied access to education and employment.

And Chairman Mao, the leader of China who presided over the deaths of millions the of people in a famine brought about by his Great Leap Forward, was also known to use the phrase against anyone who opposed him, with terrible consequences.”

(“'Enemies of the people': Trump remark echoes history's worst tyrants. BBC News. February 18, 2017.)

To make a gross understatement, President Trump is not an astute scholar of either the Fourth Estate (the mainstream press) or the Fifth Estate (a socio-cultural reference to groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society). He evidently doesn't realize the social importance of either unless, of course, he judges their coverage to be favorable to him.

The Fourth Estate must be an important, coherent and independent force in society. True to its purpose, the press does not share the same aims as government, the legislature, the executive, religion or commerce. It is, or should be, an outsider. Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian and owner of the Guardian and The Observer, said …

Of course, the press must be responsible for its own standards and ethics. But it's not the job of journalists to run things: they are literally without responsibility. They don't have to respond to a party whip, make the compromises necessary in politics or answer to shareholders. They are not bound by the confidentiality agreements that bind others. They are careless of causing inconvenience or embarrassment. They don't have to win votes. They can write things – about the economy, say, or the environment – which may need saying but which are unsayable by politicians. They come from a different place.”

(Alan Rusbridger. “The importance of a free press.” The Guardian. October 06, 2011.) 
 
The Fifth Estate actually dates to the 1960s counterculture and the establishment of an underground newspaper first published in Detroit in 1965. Now, Fifth Estate blogs have the potential to prevent governments from adopting hasty and misjudged decisions. These news sources also serve to advocate for justice, provide insider information, facilitate communication between experts, promote grassroots efforts, discredit political figures, and set policy agendas. This revolution in technology – the most significant since the invention of moveable type in the 15th century – allows virtually anyone to create and share their news and thoughts.

(Stephen D Cooper. Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers as the Fifth Estate. 2006.) 
 
As mainstream and secondary sources produce news, opinion is generally protected. Limitations do exist for fighting words, threats, words that incite, and certain offensive speech.

In Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 51 S. Ct. 625, 75 L. Ed. 1357 (1931), the Court held that the government could not prohibit the publication of a newspaper for carrying stories that were scandalous or scurrilous. The Court identified three types of publications against which a prior restraint might be valid: those that pose a threat to national security, those that contain obscene materials, and those that advocate violence or the overthrow of the government.

Without freedom of the press, people do not have the right to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their government. A press that is the organ of the government stands silent when individual liberties are threatened. As reference in the BBC report, control of the media is one of the first objectives of those who would control any society. This is an essential part of the rule of an autocrat – he suppresses and eventually controls the press.

The press must remain free and independent. No president can be allowed to delineate “fake” and real news. No American president should call the press “the enemy of the people.” It is a clear attempt to suppress dissent. It is evident such thought comes from the mind of an overlord. In this case, from President Donald Trump. Rusbridger explains the threat a leader like Trump poses …

“Totalitarian governments can never allow a free press. Our own relative freedom has been fought for over 400 years, and there can never be a moment when freedom can be considered 'won.' When people talk about 'licensing' journalists or newspapers, the instinct should be to refer them to history.

“Read about how licensing of the press in Britain was abolished in 1695. Read about how Wilkes, Cobbett, Locke, Milton, Mill, Junius and countless anonymous writers, lawyers and printers argued and battled for the comparative freedoms the press in Britain enjoys. Remember how the freedoms won here became a model for much of the rest of the world. And be conscious how the world still watches us to see how we protect those freedoms.”

(Alan Rusbridger. “The importance of a free press.” The Guardian. October 06, 2011.)
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