When I applied to Emory, I wrote my supplemental essay about the importance of a free press. I cited events in Russia, Turkey and Egypt as examples of the dangers of a government that does not respect the rights of its journalists, and could never imagine that merely one year later I would be writing about the importance of protecting press freedoms in my own country. President Donald Trump’s attitude toward the press was always problematic, but his refusal to allow several renowned news outlets into the White House press briefing Feb. 24, as The New York Times reported, crossed the line from problematic to unacceptable. This act marked the culmination of Trump’s attacks on media sources that question his rhetoric and decisions. The press bears the important responsibility of holding the government accountable by educating the general public, and we must work to ensure that Trump does not silence it.
Government accountability is one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy, and the press has long been its source. In the early 1970s, two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. More recently, Investigative Journalist Seymour Hersh, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, uncovered the horrific torture taking place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to The Independent. These are but a few examples of American journalists who fought to expose the truth and protect people’s rights to know what their government is really doing.
The fundamental problem with Trump’s attitude toward journalists is that he does not believe in government accountability. According to The Los Angeles Times, hours before Trump barred news outlets from the press briefing, he told his audience “I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake.” He continued to declare that the “fake news media” was “the enemy of the people.” While truth in journalism is certainly imperative, Trump’s tweet labeling renowned news sources The New York Times and CNN as “fake news media” is absurd and unfounded. There is a marked difference between questioning the president’s actions and telling lies.
The very idea that dissenting opinions in journalism must be inherently untruthful is extremely distressing. While comparisons between George Orwell’s 1984 and Trump’s actions are often baseless, two quotes from that novel are particularly foreboding about the press. In the novel, the main character Winston describes how “the party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” He also realizes that “if all others accepted the lie, which the party imposed, if all records told the same tale, then the lie passed into history and became truth.” If the government has a monopoly on declaring what is true or false, they can circulate lies as facts. Thus, journalists are needed to ensure the government is truthful, not vice-versa.
It is much easier for one government to lie than it is for hundreds of news outlets to do so collectively. Trump acts as if the public should just take everything that he says as fact, but his viewpoint is inherently biased in favor of his reputation. On the other hand, the media collectively acts as a source of objective information about current events and policies. While certain outlets may be slightly biased, there are so many media sources in this country that combined they paint an objective picture of reality.
Trump’s idea of media conspiracy constitutes a rejection of truthfulness and objectivity. Scholars in all fields of study scrutinize their peers’ work to ensure it meets high standards of quality. Should we not subject our president, arguably the most powerful man in the world, to the same scrutiny? Without media sources from all ends of the political spectrum, we lose our objective view of our government’s actions. Information about the activities of our government is crucial to the democratic process, since citizens rely on it to vote in elections. If nothing that Trump does is criticized, the general public does not have enough understanding of Trump’s successes or failures to responsibly vote in upcoming elections.
By barring news sources from a press briefing, Trump equated journalism with falsehood. Were the media to stop asking questions or scrutinizing the government, the door would be left open for rampant, institutionalized lying. As I write this article for publication in a newspaper, Trump’s escalating attacks on journalists hit close to home. The press, whether local, national or international, works tirelessly to keep people informed. In a digitalized world where information is paramount, journalists are more essential than ever, and their rights and freedoms must be protected for our own sakes. I encourage anyone reading this to ask why you are reading this newspaper to begin with. You probably seek information about your community that you cannot obtain on your own. The media provides the information that allows citizens to understand and engage with their government, for as The Washington Post recently stated in its new slogan, “democracy dies in darkness.” If we lose the free press, we will fail to understand the world around us; American democracy cannot afford such a catastrophic loss.
Cameron Hall is a College freshman from columbus, Ohio.