Op-Ed — Barrie Dunsmore: A free press is not an enemy of our democracy

The past two weeks — even by the standards of Trumpism — have been notable in the extreme. From “Fire and Fury,” the Michael Wolff tell-all book on the inner workings of the Trump White House, to the president’s vulgar, racist outburst in the Oval Office on what he really thinks about black and brown immigrants and the countries they come from, it has been an inauspicious beginning to Trump’s second year in office.

I hope you won’t think it parochial of me to return to a subject on which I have a clear bias — President Donald Trump’s continuing denigration of the national news media. A passionate new take on that subject came from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., last week, in a Senate speech in which he compared President Trump’s criticism of the news media to comments made by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The speech was meant to be a rebuttal to Trump’s expected announcement of the winners of his so-called “fake news” awards.

These are excerpts of Flake’s speech text released by his Senate office:

“2017 was a year which saw truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the (American) people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.

“This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And of course, the president has got it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that does not suit him ‘fake news’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.

“Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the world, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.”

With these words, Sen. Flake becomes by far the most severe critic of Donald Trump among Republican Party members of Congress. We are told that others may say critical things privately but he is virtually alone now among Republicans willing to publicly express defiance or dissent with the Trump White House.

But given that Flake is not running for re-election this year, and that he has little support among Republicans, the impact of a such a speech is likely to be less than it should be. In fact, one of the reasons I have focused so much on it was my concern that it would not get the attention it deserved.

Trump’s initial statement that the news media were “the enemy of the American people” was made nearly a year ago in February 2017. It created a minor ripple but made a big impression on me. This is part of what I wrote in this column at the time.

What Trump said was beyond the pale. Even as one who knows little history, he has to know the baggage of the phrase, “enemy of the people.” It was the mantra of mass murdering dictators like Stalin of Russia and Mao of China as justification to exterminate their opposition.

In what was one of Sen. John McCain’s finest hours, he was sharply critical of this Trump’s pronouncement in an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” In his words, “The fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

Todd: “That’s how dictators get started with tweets like that?”

McCain: “No. They get started by suppressing the press. In other words, a consolidation of power. When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press.”

Of course Trump hasn’t shut down the press — there is that pesky First Amendment. But what he has done is make a concentrated effort to totally undermine the news media by repeatedly challenging their legitimacy and diminishing their work as “fake news.”

So, in spite of a year of outstanding reporting by the mainstream news media — especially the Washington Post and the New York Times — Trump has convinced millions of Americans that these news organizations cannot be believed and may indeed be the enemy of the people. Of his officially designated 2,000 lies in his first year in office, that lie could turn out to be his worst and most damaging to the very essence of American democracy.

This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Sunday Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition.

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