Smerconish: Press is one of our best checks on government, especially now

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The New York Times headquarters is shown in New York City.

The next time you read about a newsroom making cuts, think about the extraordinary reporting shedding light on the new administration.

When I made that point in a tweet recently, it accumulated more than a thousand "likes." Of course, it fell on deaf ears at the White House, where, two days later, @realDonaldTrump tweeted:

The last time I checked, he had generated 160,737 likes, but it didn't persuade me. Nor, apparently, the many who began using the hashtag #NotTheEnemy.

From literally day one - think crowd size at the inauguration - President Trump has used every opportunity to bash the "mainstream" media. Typical were his comments at that epic news conference:

"The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people - tremendous disservice. . . . The level of dishonesty is out of control.

". . . how does the press get this information that's classified? . . . Because it's an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves. But, more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves. Really ashamed."

The president is attacking one of our best checks on government - especially at a time when Congress shows no interest in playing that role with regard to the relationship between the president's pals and Russia. His anger was precipitated by revelatory journalism that takes time and money, including:

CNN's accurate report Jan. 12 that both President Barack Obama and the president-elect were briefed on "allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump."

David Ignatius' Jan. 12 report in the Washington Post revealing that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had spoken with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak regarding the sanctions imposed by Obama.

And the New York Times' front-page, above-the-fold story Feb. 15 revealing that Trump associates had ongoing dialogues with Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.

We know (what little) we know only because of old-fashioned, gumshoe reporting of the kind that is in short supply these days because of newsroom layoffs across the country. Sure, there's been an explosion of self-described journalist bloggers, but people with laptops sitting in their PJ's are no substitute for investigative reporters. Where print advertising has plummeted and newspaper staffs have been eviscerated, we are seeing a damaging trend where there's less investigative journalism and government goes unchecked. And not just on a national level. Think about some of the local stories uncovered by the Inquirer's sleuthing.

Like Alfred Lubrano's look at the "Air Bridge" program, in which public officials in Puerto Rico since the 1990s have been paying the airfare for drug addicts, many of them HIV positive, to come to Philadelphia for treatment. Once the addicts arrive here, they realize they've been misled about the conditions in Philadelphia treatment centers and many of them end up in the encampment under the Conrail tracks in Fairhill and Kensington. This is essentially a way for cities in Puerto Rico to export its drug problems to big cities in the United States. The work behind that publication included more than 120 interviews.

Or, take Mike Newall's revelations last fall about Philadelphia Parking Authority czar Vince Fenerty and his sexual harassment of subordinates. After the publication of Newall's first column, PPA officials said that they had decided to keep Fenerty in the job because it was the only time he had misbehaved. But a few days later, Newall disclosed a second case, which board members said either they'd forgotten or never knew about. After that, Fenerty resigned.

Nobody likes leaking, including me. But the reality is that were it not for the leaks about Michael Flynn, he'd still be a national security adviser who'd spoken with the Russian ambassador about sanctions but said otherwise publicly and to the vice president - a situation known both to him and the Russians, creating the risk of blackmail.

Trump attempted to cloak himself in the words of a founding father while speaking at a rally last weekend in Florida. He quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying in 1807 that "nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper." The full quote, which was contained in a letter to John Norvell, is more nuanced:

"It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

Jefferson had grown more skeptical of the press while president. But 20 years prior, as U.S. minister to France, Jefferson said the following in a letter to Edward Carrington:

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.