• on January 29, 2018

Words Matter: When the President’s Attacks on the Press Inspire Others to Act

“Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down.”

These were the words uttered by a Michigan man as he called CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m smarter than you, more powerful than you. I have more guns than you. More manpower. Your cast is about to get gunned down in a matter of hours,” he said.

Inspired by a catch phrase coined by President Trump, and one that has been used in countless attacks over the past year to discredit the legitimacy of the press, this man felt emboldened to act upon his frustrations. Thankfully, the FBI was able to intervene before it led to violence, but it remains a significant reminder of how impactful the President’s words can be in energizing his base, either to the benefit or detriment of the people.

In a recently released report by the PR firm, Edelman, the 2018 Trust Barometer states that mistrust in the United States is increasing rapidly. A majority of Americans — 63% — are unsure of the credibility of their news sources and 70% voiced concern about the weaponization of fake stories. Edelman continued, “The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse.” As mistrust continues to grow, it can become easy for opportunists to exploit this anxiety for their own purposes.

Many people would say that biased or even outright falsified reports are to blame for this loss of trust. It’s not hard to point out mistakes in reporting or editorial decisions that seem to favor certain angles in news stories. Media bias is real, and we shouldn’t hesitate to point it out. The danger comes when public figures use mistakes to undermine the credibility of the press and dismiss legitimate reports. President Trump’s escalating rhetoric against journalists and the media in general are just that — attempts to silence and undermine unflattering news.

The reality is that most news reports from established outlets are generally accurate and only marginally slanted by the opinions of the author. And when similar reports appear across several reputable outlets, we can have confidence that they are all circling the same thread of truth. The news media is not perfect. Luckily, our Constitution doesn’t need it to be.

The Founding Fathers understood that a free press was necessary to a functioning democracy. But they also knew that a free press could have biases or even make mistakes. The genius of the Constitution’s first amendment is in ensuring that we have a thriving market of ideas and facts for the citizenry to consume, analyze, and use to make informed decisions. Outrage, anger, and threats against the press don’t make for better reporting. They only threaten to diminish an essential component of our democracy.

The president’s anti-media rhetoric isn’t aimed at actually improving the quality of the media. On the contrary, it’s an attempt to animate and mislead his strongest supporters and convince them that no one should be trusted but the president himself. As world-renowned human rights activist Garry Kasparov says, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

A hallmark of effective presidential leadership should be the ability to inspire respect for our institutions and constructive civic debate, not agitating supporters to the brink of violence. Stand Up Republic and Stand Up Ideas are working together to promote and highlight the noble and necessary service journalists provide around the world. The courage they display in spite of the dangers and risks associated with the nature of their work should be honored, not discouraged. As Edelman stated in the 2018 Trust Barometer, “Silence is a tax on the truth. Trust is only going to be regained when the truth moves back to center stage. Institutions must answer the public’s call for providing factually accurate, timely information and joining the public debate. Media cannot do it alone because of political and financial constraints. Every institution must contribute to the education of the populace.”

This change is only possible if citizens remain civically active and engaged in defending these institutions against baseless attacks. We hope you’ll join us in highlighting the many ways journalists have changed the world for the better. You can join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #FreePressFreeWorld.

The next time someone attacks the press, you can explain exactly why a free and open press is essential for an America that promises liberty and justice for all.

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