Today, many of our fellow editorial pages are heeding a call from the Boston Globe to denounce President Trump’s attacks on the news media. We’ve already made our case — in a stout defense of the free press on yesterday’s Editorial Page — and in more than a year’s worth of commentary criticizing the president’s repeated use of careless language and frequent insults aimed at all kinds of Americans, including members of the press. Trump’s sometimes clueless and combative language is not only divisive, it often overshadows his administration’s considerable policy accomplishments in tax reform, federal deregulation, and the appointment of superb judges committed to constitutional restraint.
We are not, however, entirely comfortable with an organized one-day campaign aimed at one politician, for a couple of reasons.
First, Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is toothless and should be of little concern to a confident, competent news media. The president has not used the powers of his office to weaken the First Amendment. John Adams, on the other hand, persuaded Congress to pass the Sedition Act in 1798 making it a crime to publish “malicious” comments about the president or Congress. Several newspaper publishers were jailed. That’s what a true threat to freedom of the press looks like. President Trump has, as have almost of of his predecessors, used his bully pulpit to criticize the news media, though he has done so in more strident terms than most modern presidents.
Trump’s theme has been more reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in an 1806 letter to a Massachusetts congressman: “As for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers.” A more eloquent version of “fake news.”
Second, we are concerned that a unified editorial campaign aimed at the president will do as much harm as good, by confirming his supporters’ belief — sometimes justified — that most of the news media is unfairly arrayed against the president on all matters and issues. The Times-Dispatch Editorial Pages prefer to exercise independent, case-by-case analysis of the president as the basis for our commentary about him, as we do for all elected officials who appear on our pages.
We do not condemn the actions of our editorial colleagues across the country who choose to unite to defend the news media against a president they see as hostile to press freedom. But we decline to adopt the tactic they deploy today. Rigorous debate about the role of the news media in our democracy is necessary and healthy. We support it, as demonstrated by, among other things, our letters to the editor, which frequently question our judgment, and by our Public Square in February 2017 that asked: “Do you trust the news media?”
Building trust is an unceasing endeavor, for both newspapers and public officials. Much work remains.