Pay no attention to his off-the-cuff remarks, or to his early-morning tweets, say the true believers in everything that issues from Donald Trump. Watch what he does, not what he says.
This is perfectly sage advice when it comes to most individuals, even most powerful ones. But most of us are not the president of the United States of America, with a bully pulpit that greatly influences the world with every word he says.
And so it’s time to take a stand by demanding that the president stop his dangerous and indeed possibly violence-provoking rhetoric that repeatedly dubs the press — and that would be us — as “the enemy of the people.”
It matters little that the president, who rose to power in the business world partly by being a master manipulator of the media, doesn’t actually believe this old catch phrase is the truth. He’s been known to play a bit fast and loose, as have many politicians before him, with the truth.
It probably doesn’t matter that the phrase, coined in Roman times, and used by Shakespeare as well, was most prominently used by the dictators of the Soviet Union, from Lenin in 1917 on down, to denounce the democratic foes of communism in Russia. If the president does know that, we would think that the irony of his present predicament, in which his ties to Russia are the subject of seemingly endless investigation, would keep him from uttering the words.
But the fact is he does keep uttering the words, as if he can’t help himself, often in the context of his ongoing campaign-like rallies, seemingly because he likes the mesmerizing effect they have on his crowds. He will intone them, nod over to the reporters’ gallery, and revel in the roar.
Because of the literal danger to reporters and editors when such propaganda is spoken by our president, the publisher of The New York Times, AG Sulzberger, sought and got a private, off-the-record meeting with Trump in which he asked him to tone it down for the good of the nation. But then the president took to Twitter: “had a very good and interesting meeting” with Sulzberger “about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People’. Sad!”
Wait — in what sense would a newspaper publisher agree that what his journalists report is a phrase created by the president, “Fake News,” much less that such has “morphed” all on its own into an authoritarian expression, “Enemy of the People,” that has been rehashed by the president himself?
We’re tired of these blanket denunciations from the Oval Office. Criticism of the media is fair, and welcome. We shouldn’t be immune to it. We are critical of others, and it’s fine for people to be critical of us. It would be one thing if Trump were an articulate, nuanced observer of biased media coverage — but he’s not. His smears of the press contribute to further polarization of Americans.
Has the rhetoric translated into tangible restrictions on press freedom overall? Probably not — though the jacked-up price of newsprint thanks to protectionist tariffs against Canadian paper doesn’t make the daily miracle any easier. But the hostility he drums up doesn’t help our ability to fairly report what’s happening in the world and down your street on the front page, and to comment on that news in the Opinion pages.
What Sulzberger said after the president broke the embargo on the private meeting is what we believe: The term “fake news” is largely untrue and harmful. But the phrase “enemy of the people” in a time of rising threats against journalists for doing our job is dangerously inflammatory.
— Digital First Media