By Miriam Raftery
February 19, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – President Donald Trump has raised disturbing comparisons to notorious dictators and to disgraced President Richard Nixon with his unjustified attacks on respected, established media outlets as “fake news” and his repeated denouncements of “dishonest media.”
Worse yet, Trump’s tweet this week calling media an “enemy of the American people” has drawn sharp criticisms from a Fox News anchor, his own Secretary of Defense, Republican Senator John McCain, and Carl Bernstein, the reporter whose investigation exposed the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The right to a free press is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution enshrined in the Bill of Rights –clearly the top priority for America’s founding fathers, who prohibited Congress from making any law to abridge that freedom. “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, not that be limited without danger of losing it,” Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1786.
Trump’s wild accusations have not been backed up with facts. The President indeed objects not to tabloids printing falsehoods or even inaccurate reports in established media, but rather to legitimate reporters at major media outlets telling the truth about his administration. He’s slammed CNN as “fake news” and barred them from his press conferences, also denigrating the New York Times and all 3 major TV networks – ABC, CBS and NBC while offering no specific details to bolster his claims.
A reality TV star accustomed to basking in positive media attention prior to his campaign for the presidency, Trump’s efforts to undermine the First Amendment freedom of the press is alarmingly similar to statements made in the past by such infamous dictators as Stalin, Lenin, Hitler and Napoleon.
No American president has ever publicly attacked the press as an enemy force, though Nixon once privately complained that he viewed the press as his enemy.
Bernstein, speaking Sunday on CNN, had this to say. “Trump’s attacks on the American press as `enemies of the American people’ are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press.” He added pointedly that Trump’s public attacks on a free press is similar to “dictators and authoritarians, including Stalin, including Hitler.”
Consider these remarks:
“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns.” – Nikolai Lenin
Adolph Hitler frequently used the term “lugenpresse” which means “lying press,” a term also used by Trump and his supporters. Hitler also had this to say after abolishing a free press in Nazi Germany: “The organization of our press has truly been a success. Our law concerning the press is such that divergences of opinion between members of the government are no longer an occasion for public exhibitions, which are not the newspapers’ business. We’ve eliminated that conception of political freedom which holds that everybody has the right to say whatever comes into his head.”
Napoleon Bonaparte also attacked the press, once observing, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once observed, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”
Convicted Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy also held disdain for the media, stating in 1987, “The press is like the peculiar uncle you keep in the attic--just one of those unfortunate things.”
Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace said on Sunday’s Fox & Friends that Trump’s remarks are “very dangerous” to a democracy “We can take criticism, but to say we’re the enemy of the American people, it really crosses an important line,” said Wallace, noting that President Obama never characterized media as the enemy, despite often negative coverage by Fox News, among others.
In an interview on Meet the Press, Republican Senator and former Presidential nominee John McCain issued a blunt warning. “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.”
Our founding fathers agreed.
Benjamin Franklin, a newspaper publisher himself, once observed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech.”
George Washington, our nation’s first president, once told his Army officers in 1783 while battling the British for independence that “If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter...the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
James Madison wrote, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been obtained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Many later presidents echoed those sentiments. Theodore Roosevelt observed, “If there is one thing we ought to be careful about, it is in regard to interfering with the liberty of the press…It is a great deal better to err a little bit on the side of having too much discussion and having too virulent language used by the press, rather than to err on the side of having them not say what they ought to say, especially with reference to public men and measures.”
President John F. Kennedy observed that despite the “abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration” he viewed the press as “an invaluable arm of the Presidency—to check really on what is going on in the administration…there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Other prominent historical figures have also spoken up for a free press.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the function of the press “very high. It is almost holy.” He added, “It ought to serve as a forum for the people, through which the people may know freely what is going on. To misstate or suppress the news is a breach of trust.”
Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during World War II, stated, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.”
Author and historian H.G. Wells made this provocative statement: “The cause of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire lay in the fact that there were no newspapers in that day. Because there were no newspapers, there was no way by which the dwellers in the far-flung nation and the empire could find out what was going on at the center.”
George Orwell, author of the novels 1984 and Animal House, warning about totalitarianism, concluded, “Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”