LICHTENSTEIN: Defend freedom of the press at U.Va.

In an era of unprecedented assault, it is our responsibility as students to uphold our most important democratic institution

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President Donald Trump's campaign against the press is grounded in an anti-democratic philosophy — and the free press stands directly in his way.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Joining The Boston Globe, over 350 newspaper outlets around the country published editorials Thursday condemning President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the freedom of the press. Established by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government is barred from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Trump, however, has established a malicious campaign against newspaper and media outlets as a pillar of his presidency. At the surface, Trump’s assault is characterized by the targeting of individual journalists, such as Maggie Haberman, and scorn towards the industry as a whole — yet these jarring examples fail to fully capture the implications of Trump’s attack. His campaign against the press is grounded in an anti-democratic philosophy — and the free press stands directly in his way. Our responsibility as students is clear. We must condemn and combat Trump’s assault on the free press as the next generation to uphold this country’s foundation.

Trump is not the first president to criticize the free press, however the sustained nature of his assault points towards a declaration against the institution itself — something unprecedented for those who swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” President Lyndon B. Johnson famously criticized newspapers’ characterization of his presidency by saying, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’” Even Thomas Jefferson, a vehement supporter of the free press, said several years into his second term as president that “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.” At first glance, these statements seem to demonstrate that Trump’s criticisms are innocuous — merely observations of a president frustrated with the press’ treatment of his actions and administration. This comparison, however, does not recognize Trump’s disregard for the vital role independent journalism serves in a democracy.

Instead of serving as the Fourth Estate — where the free press acts as an integral check on the powers of the government — Trump seeks to use the press as nothing more than a mouthpiece for his personal agenda. To adequately carry out its constitutional responsibility, the press must investigate Trump’s policies. This journalism, however, does not inherently lead to criticism — journalists pride themselves on objectivity and their ability to shed light on all factors of a given subject. Trump, however, disregards this objectivity, and assumes that any opposition to his administration stems from the press’ desire to upend his presidency. Take, for example, Trump’s comments on Aug. 22, 2017, when the president characterized journalists as “sick people,” stating that the press was “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” Through these and similar accusations, President Trump not only attempts to trivialize the importance of the press — he threatens to turn the American people against the very institution that makes us free.

As students, we are taught every day to be critical, and to develop a full understanding of all relevant facts before drawing a conclusion. In the case of Trump’s assault on the freedom of the press, it is our responsibility to recognize and denounce any attempt to undermine our democratic values. At the University, we can do so by engaging fully with student journalism outlets. The Cavalier Daily and its counterparts work tirelessly to provide an objective and accurate account of University life. Whether you offer criticism or praise, I implore you to approach media outlets with an open mind and a critical eye  — the responsibility of upholding the freedom of the press falls to each of us.

The true danger — and goal — of Trump’s anti-media strategy lies in the creation of a perception among the American people that the press undermines, rather than strengthens, our democratic society. Characterized by an increasingly held belief among Americans that the news media is biased, the current climate provides Trump an opportunity to turn skepticism into outright contempt. We cannot allow this to happen. 

Jake Lichtenstein is the Executive Editor of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.lichtenstein@cavalierdaily.com.

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