By Guy Page
I edited and published the Colchester Chronicle from 1987 to 2002. I was a daily newspaper reporter before then and have been in and out of journalism ever since. From this background, I share my thoughts about the “I’m not the enemy, you’re the enemy” middle-school cafeteria food-fight we’re seeing between President Trump and much of the U.S. press.
The Constitution specifically protects the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech for all Americans – including the president:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
President Trump’s tweets and tirades are “the free exercise” of an American citizen. Every slam of him in the U.S. media is an exercise of the “freedom of the press.” Are some of their words abhorrent? Sure. But until Trump or a successor sends goons to smash the presses or arrest editors, it’s all constitutional. And if the worst does happens, the “originalist” judges Trump is appointing hand-over-fist to federal benches will demand a strict reading of the First Amendment. Either way, the Republic will endure.
Trump is Trump. If he thinks he’s being attacked, he retaliates, right out in the open. I say to my former colleagues: if he’s wrong, prove it. If he’s right, say so. But stop whining about how he is having a chilling effect on the First Amendment. What codswallop. Presidential “fake news” accusations go all back to President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Sound familiar? And we’ve been attacked by elected leaders ever since. Several times I saw former Gov. Peter Shumlin publicly rebuke and malign reporters who asked uncomfortable questions. Such exchanges may have been mentioned in print now and then with an editorial raised eyebrow, but no-one got too upset. It was just part of the job.
The press also might also consider whether there is at least a nugget of truth in what he says. Much of the national press has been sailing on a port tack since the Vietnam War. These days, the Boston Globe and the New York Times front page often carries an above-the-fold “analysis” calling Trump a liar, moron, traitor, or twisted genius, or some combination thereof. I’ve been reading newspapers critically since 1979 when my first editor at the Burlington Free Press told me to read the paper every day. Never have I seen a president, or any other elected leader, so viscerally hated and subjected to biased coverage as has been Donald Trump. It’s gone way past holding a government leader accountable, which is what I was taught to do.
Trump’s words can be divisive. Some people find them corrosive. But they are, after all, just words — and thanks to the same Constitution that protects the freedom of the press, he is free to speak them. Unless he suddenly exerts unwarranted executive power over the press — which I doubt he will — America’s ship of state will keep sailing ahead on freedom’s choppy waters. So never mind the bad weather. She’s built for it.
Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.