By Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff
Better to be an enemy of the people than an enemy of reality.
—Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975)
On July 19, 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted that his summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin was “a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.” Trump was desperately playing defense after a number of critics—including Mike Rogers, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—concluded that Trump had betrayed the U.S. intelligence community, if not the nation itself, by accepting Putin’s denials about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
On July 15, Trump had described the press in nearly identical terms, asserting, “Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people.” These most recent tweets reiterated Trump’s message, tweeted less than a month after his inauguration, that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People.”
As we noted in our Introduction to Censored 2018: Press Freedoms in a “Post-Truth” World, the term, “enemy of the people,” carries foreboding political resonances, having historically been used “by despots against journalists and dissidents, sometimes to justify ethnic cleansing.” Trump, we wrote then, has used the term, “proudly and repeatedly, against the free press.”
Trump’s antipathy toward the press, we noted, established a hostile stance that others have been willing to put into action. Thus, in May 2017, during his campaign as the GOP candidate in Montana’s special election for the House of Representatives, Greg Gianforte confronted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, first verbally abusing Jacobs and then body-slamming him to the ground. A spokesperson for PEN America, Gabe Rottman, noted, “A member of the House hasn’t physically assaulted someone this severely since the civil war, and we are unaware of any historical precedent for a lawmaker beating up a reporter.” Gianforte, whom Trump had previously endorsed, pled guilty to misdemeanor assault charges—and went on to win the election.
More recently, on June 28, 2018, a gunman killed five people and injured two others in an attack on the Annapolis, Maryland, offices of the Capital Gazette, in what the county’s Deputy Police Chief, William Krampf, characterized as a “targeted attack.”
There’s no definitive evidence, of course, that Trump’s verbal attacks encouraged Gianforte’s assault or the murders that Jarrod Ramos stands accused of committing. But Trump’s repeated condemnations of the press are virulent in the root sense of that term, which traces back to the Middle English for a poisonous wound, and especially one capable of infecting others.
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This week we are completing the manuscript for Project Censored’s next book, Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, and remembering the Project’s founder, Carl Jensen, who was born on July 25, 1929.
As many readers already know, dissatisfaction with the performance of the U.S. press led Jensen to launch Project Censored in 1976. In a chapter titled, “What Happened to Good Old-Fashioned Muckraking,” (published in Kristina Borjesson’s 2002 book, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press), Jensen wrote, “The primary goal of Project Censored is to improve media coverage of important public issues.” During his tenure as the Project’s director, Carl was an incisive and colorful critic of establishment journalism, which, he once observed, needed “more muckrakers and fewer buckrakers.”
Whereas Donald Trump seems opposed to any form of journalism that involves factual reality—with the exception, perhaps, of “alternative” facts, as endorsed by his counselor, Kellyanne Conway—Carl Jensen’s critique of establishment media was nuanced and grounded in the core values of the profession. Trump wants journalists to serve his interests; Jensen wanted the press to serve the public. As Jensen wrote in his chapter lamenting the demise of muckraking journalism, “High technology and a free press do not guarantee a well-informed society. The problem is not the quantity of information that we receive, but the quality.”
Writing in the aftermath of 9/11, Jensen observed that the outlook for investigative journalism in the United States was “bleak at best.” He identified a half-dozen conditions contributing to a dearth of investigative journalism, including lawsuits and legal decisions that hamstring media freedom, a trend from individual reporting toward a corporate group approach, declining public trust in news, and the market imperative for news outlets to maximize profits. These conditions, Jensen argued, made it increasingly difficult for journalists to live up to their profession’s responsibility as the “fourth estate,” a crucial check-and-balance on abuses of power—whether by any of the government’s three branches or by corporate entities.
When President Trump sees the press as an “enemy of the people,” we see a myopic and misogynistic, racist and reactionary, hatemongering narcissist who is, in fact, at odds with reality.
The forthcoming Censored volume carries forward the legacy established by Carl Jensen, by highlighting the work of journalists, activists, scholars, and students, all of whom are champions of reality—even when that reality includes facts we wish were otherwise, challenges to which there are no simplistic solutions, and a president whose professed values and wanton actions stray so far from the ideals of the common good that we hold dear.
For more on Carl Jensen, see “A Life Shedding Light on Areas Left Dark by Corporate Media” by Peter Phillips, the Project’s director from 1996, when Jensen retired, until 2010.
Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion will be published by Seven Stories Press on October 2, 2018. It is available for pre-order now, directly from Project Censored, with early shipping in mid-September.
Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion. He coordinates the Project’s Validated Independent News program and serves on the board of the Media Freedom Foundation.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2019. He is executive producer and cohost of The Project Censored Show; a professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College, where he cochairs the History Department; and the president of the Media Freedom Foundation.