Trump, the Press and Democracy
Issue   |   Tue, 12/05/2017 - 22:49

Journalism, The Amherst Student included, deserves criticism. Often times what journalists write is wrong, sensationalized, unfair or incorrectly focused. But while other presidents have complained about the press, President Donald Trump has dangerously changed the role of journalism by not acknowledging the essential role that an independent press plays in our democracy.

As of Nov. 13, The Washington Post reported that Trump has made 1,628 false and misleading claims since taking on the elected position. Over 50 times, he has incorrectly stated the U.S. has the highest stock market ever and enthusiasm of companies moving into the U.S. is the highest ever.

The pervasiveness and chaos of his false claims combined with his explicit vilification of journalists remains dangerous in how we consider what is true and may make us complacent in how we question the truth. More dangerously, it may jeopardize the public’s ability to assess what is a credible news story and what is fake. According to a poll conducted by Politico, 46 percent of the American population thinks the media makes up stories about Trump.

A constant and honest look into different institutions is crucial for protecting our citizens, but this task, historically entrusted to a free press, is made harder when Trump belittles and disrupts the news media responsible for challenging his false claims. As Amherst College Professor of Philosophy Alexander George wrote in The New York Times this February, Trump’s denigration of individual members of the press and of entire news organizations serves to “poison the wells of reasoned public discourse, a prerequisite for a functioning democracy.”

Moreover, Trump’s proposals for changes in laws related to the First Amendment, like libel statutes, may systematically change what journalists write about for fear of being prosecuted. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been 32 arrests of journalists, 24 times equipment was seized, stolen or damaged and 35 physical attacks on journalists since the start of 2017. Free speech as we know it remains fragile as long as criticism of the government could become discouraged or even illegal.

The news media must do more to address the chaotic nature of his presidency in such a way that citizens don’t become distrustful of responsible, ethical journalism. The individualized cases of absurdity in his statements distract from and drown out stories about changes to legislation and policy that more directly affect the day-to-day lives of average Americans, such as taxes and health care. The focus should be shifted from the daily criticism of his tweets and comments to analysis of how our system allows such statements to be made and accepted by him and by others.

Overall, Trump’s relationship with journalism is a threat to democracy. His lies, his threats to silence those who criticize him and his defamation of entire news organizations all suggest that he is dedicated to corrupting the tools that the American public uses to inform itself and make sense of the surrounding world. A healthy, fact-based public discourse, informed by ethical reporting, is essential to democracy. Trump’s assault on the institutions responsible for providing that reporting puts the whole system in peril.