Jeff Bezos’ The Washington Post, with the New York Times, key individuals at CNN and MSNBC, New Yorker magazine and a handful of other major news outlets, has stood strong in defense of an independent press in the face of Trump administration pressures the last couple months.
It reiterated the importance of leaders of democratic societies to affirm the value of a free and independent press in a world still scourged by authoritarian regimes in an editorial yesterday. The editorial was entitled, “A Gift to Tyrants Everywhere: Mr. Trump’s Attacks on the Press are Resonating With Authoritarian Regimes.”
Indeed, it stated the obvious, but something all lovers of democratic societies sorely need to be reminded of in the current Trumpian climate. Always, in State Department and other evaluations of democratic freedoms or the lack of them in regimes around the globe, the extent to which a press is free or not has been a determinant factor.
Now, regimes known to be repressive and anti-democratic are parroting the words of Trump, especially the claim of “fake news” to attack any news articles they don’t like. This includes the Chinese, where their party newspaper, People’s Daily, accused an article asserting a human rights violation as “Fake News” fabricated, it said, “to tarnish China’s image.” It extends to the Russians (no surprise, right?) whose foreign ministry has set up a new section of its website to use a big red stamp, “Fake,” for news reports it doesn’t like.
A Russian diplomat queried on the move by a CNN reporter last week was videotaped turning to exclaim, “Fake news!”
Thank you, Trump administration! You’ve given the enemies of democracy everywhere the slogan they need to refute any critical reporting.
All lovers of democracy appreciate the need for a free and independent press, beginning with our founding fathers. Ben Franklin laid the groundwork for what would become the American revolution by starting a newspaper in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson said he preferred a free press to institutions of democratic government if it came down to a choice between the two. Alexander Hamilton founded a newspaper in New York.
As I wrote in a brief history of the first 25 years of my own newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press, last year, as our very first edition was prepared to roll off the press, “When the press bell rang and everything started to move, it was a very special moment. As the papers started chugging onto a conveyor belt, I couldn’t help but stand on a box and loudly exclaim, ‘Let every tyrant tremble! A free press is the voice of the people in defense of liberty and freedom everywhere!’ The noise of the press drowned me out so that only a couple of pressmen looked at me funny.”
It is a poignant coincidence that I was born a week after the legendary newspaperman William Allen White, a pioneering early critic of fascism, died. His obituary appeared in the Life magazine that was published on my birthday.
I published my first newspaper at age eight, was editor of my high school and college newspapers and have known many wonderful newspaper men and women down through the years. I had the honor of hiring the legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas to write a column for me that she did as her last professional work at age 91. I worked in the year prior to founding the Falls Church News-Press for the late Sam Summerlin, who passed at 89 last week and was a journalist covering the Korean War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, Argentina, the Philippines and American South during the rise of civil rights ferment in the 1960s.
In my first Falls Church News-Press editorial, I stated the newspaper is “committed to anyone who might be exposed to it with a solid vision of the kind of mandate the blessed right to free speech imposes upon the institution of the press in any democratic society.”
I added, the seven-point platform on journalistic integrity I adopted “remains a sturdy rudder, which can guide any newspaper in its rocky course between freedom and the responsibility that is always associated with it.”
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].