Journalists can't save a free press in Trump's America. Only you can

20160725-Trump-media
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters in South Carolina

Americans are funny about their constitutional rights, I've noticed. They're not all created equal, at least not in the public eye. Of the first 10 amendments -- the Bill of Rights -- none has a fan base quite like the 2nd Amendment, which establishes a right to carry firearms. Ask anyone who's ever suggested that the right to bear arms might have a few small limitations and then watched 2nd Amendment enthusiasts -- even folks who couldn't tell the difference between a "Saturday Night Special" and Saturday Night Live -- pour out of the woodwork. The 2nd Amendment -- at least as interpreted by gun enthusiasts -- has its own powerful and well-funded lobbying group, the National Rifle Association, that always causes a majority of U.S. politicians to do what politicians do best, which is cower in fear.

If only the 1st Amendment had that kind of love. You'd think the 1st Amendment would be the most popular one, not just because of numerical superiority but because it covers so much stuff -- the right to speak freely, the right to a free press, free assembly, freedom of movement, and even the right to worship. Even the right to petition the government with grievances is covered by the 1st Amendment, meaning this is the amendment that makes Festivus possible. Who doesn't support that?

But talk to a lot of conservatives and the only enthusiasm that gets mustered for the 1st Amendment seems to be a) to tell you "the 2nd Amendment is what makes the 1st Amendment possible" (which I'm not convinced is true, by the way) 0r b) when some weird dude named Milo wants to give his white supremacy spiel on college campuses. (In fairness, campus liberals haven't done the 1st Amendment many favors lately.) Unlike the all-powerful NRA, the lobbying group best associated with free speech -- the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU -- still gets bashed as Commie pinkos by a lot of people. And the flesh-and-blood press tasked with carrying out a key part of the 1st Amendment is struggling for oxygen in the 21st Century, with our old business model in a state of free fall.

And so now, with the 1st Amendment already wobbling, comes a new president of the United States who poses the greatest threat to a free press in America's 240-year history. President Trump, who pulled together a far-right plurality to capture the GOP nomination in 2016 by whipping up resentment toward the media and other so-called "elites," has now managed to up the ante in just the first month of his presidency.

On Friday, Trump -- in the wake of a remarkably rambling 77-minute press conference and bombshell revelations about the incoming administration's dealings with Russia -- took to Twitter to lash out at the media in generally and specifically at the New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS, branding them as "enemies of the American people."

On Saturday, the president brought his Bonzo-goes-to-Nuremberg-style rallies to Melbourne, Florida, where his wife Melania either paid homage to the 1st Amendment or trashed it -- depending on your perspective -- by starting the event with the Christian Lord's Prayer, before her husband stepped up his unholy war on a free media.

"The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don't want to report the truth and they've been calling us wrong now for two years," Trump told his supporters. "They don't get it." He cited newspaper criticisms from Thomas Jefferson -- omitting the other times when Jefferson called the press essential to democracy -- and said the media is "part of a corrupt system," adding: "They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda."

The president didn't mince words, so neither should his critics. This is American dictator stuff, straight-up. Trump wasn't wrong in asserting that past presidents had their problems with a critical press and even loathed the media (cough, cough Richard Nixon) behind closed doors. But there's never before been a time when the president used his bully pulpit and the full powers of his office to publicly attack, in essence, one of the fundamental pillars of the Bill of Rights. He is trying to delegitimize the very notion of a free press as it's practiced in America in the 21st Century -- and thus strengthen his own power as an authoritarian ruler at the expense of his diminished watchdogs.

Trump may not be an avid reader, but somehow he's absorbed a playbook with pages ripped from a century of dictators on both the right and on the left -- a slur that, to steal from the old joke, did not sound better in the original German when Hitler and his minions called the media the "lügenpresse," or lying press. Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former presidential candidate with his own love-hate relationship with reporters, told NBC's Chuck Todd earlier today that attacking the press in such a fashion is "how dictators get started." It didn't escape notice that McCain was speaking from Munich, a stone's throw from the site of the Beer Hall Putsch.

I know what some people are saying. Trump's attack on the press so far has been a war of words, not action. I won't be thrown in jail for just now saying the president's speech was "dictator stuff," not today, not next month and (probably) not next year. But words are usually the precursor to action. And there have in fact been some troubling early steps toward actual abuse of power -- such as Trump son-in-law and closest adviser Jared Kushner lodging complaints to top executives at CNN's parent Time-Warner about specific pundits critical of Trump, at the same time Time-Warner is seeking federal approval for a merger. And in a nation that's seen its share of terror attacks and assassination attempts over the years, who knows how Trump will treat a free press when an actual crisis hits the fan?

But just Trump's words these past 30 days are the building blocks -- intentional or not -- of a kind of authoritarian rule that America has never seen before and that most citizens have desperately wanted to avoid. That's because his unprecedented attacks on a free press come at precisely the same time that Trump and his aides have not just bent the truth but outright lied in a fashion never before seen at the top of U.S. government. The president's false, bizarre and frankly dangerous assertion that there had been a terror attack in Sweden was just the latest example in a line of untruths that includes blatant, repeated lies about the U.S. crime rate, the margin of Trump's election victory, and the size of his inauguration crowd.

What we're seeing is the greatest power grab in American history -- a full-scale coup aimed at controlling what is truth, and what is fiction. Trump and his Oval Office crew are seeing the unchallenged right to create "alternative facts," to set the terms of what is true without regard to any sense of objective reality and especially without regard to "the very, very dishonest media." And the ability to manufacture reality is the essence of totalitarianism.

And here's the really tricky part about all of this. Trump is using the full force of the American presidency to wage war against a declared "enemy" that fights back with one hand tied behind its back. The ethics of modern American journalism suggests that the 90 percent of news journalists who aren't opinion writers (like me) can't respond in kind to these direct slanders from the Oval Office. Most newsroom leaders will say the only proper response from a journalist is "to do your job," to keep working on exposing truths, wherever the chips may fall.

Over the weekend, many journalists and our allies took to Twitter and Facebook to remind people about so-called "enemies of the American people" who risked everything and even gave their lives to expose the truth -- brave people like the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, murdered by al-Qaeda thugs in Pakistan, or the Arizona Republic's Don Bolles, who was killed by mobsters with a car bomb. In this uncertain time, I'd also remind people of the work that journalists do that maybe isn't life-or-death, but still as important as hell. Just pick up today's Inquirer and read the front-page piece by Stephanie Farr and Sam Wood, with photos by Michael Bryant, on the rampant heroin abuse that takes place along El Campamento, the grim freight-rail embankment that cuts through Kensington. With local journalism hanging by a thread in 2017, an all-out war of libel suits, regulatory pressure and whipping up an angry public may have the collateral effect of destroying this type of journalism in the years ahead. And when such stories disappear, City Hall will be perfectly comfortable doing nothing to fix problems that no longer see the light of day.

I do believe -- and I may still be in a minority on this -- that Trump and the rise of an authoritarian government has changed the rules of engagement, and that journalists are going to need to figure out a more aggressive, albeit creative, response. I'm eager to work on new ways to fight back.

But journalists aren't going to save ourselves from the Trump onslaught. In launching this war, Trump and his right-wing allies know that the media can look embarrassingly defensive when we're under attack. Indeed, they're hoping to goad the media into the kind of responses they believe will whip up even more anger among their core supporters.

If the 1st Amendment survives this threat, it will only be with support from everyday people. Journalists just aren't going to march for our rights that way that women, immigrants, and even scientists have done or will do under Trump, but regular citizens can pick up the slack to remind the government -- and their neighbors -- that a free press is a fundamental American right and that regular people even support the 1st Amendment as enthusiastically as Elk County hunters back the 2nd.

The president's remarkable words of the last few days are essentially asking you, the American people, to choose a side. That doesn't mean loving everything the media does;  God knows I've used Attytood as a platform to criticize the New York Times, CNN and others -- but only because I want a tough and fair-minded press to do better. That 1st Amendment ideal is tonight facing its gravest threat yet. The months ahead will determine whether an independent media will be the  ones working, imperfectly, toward finding and sharing a real and objective truth, or whether the terms and conditions of reality will be set by an all-powerful Trump government.

I still believe that the American people can handle the truth. But first and foremost, we have to want it.

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