Fear of reporters is fear of the truth
In the weeks after he assumed office, former President Donald Trump put reporters in the crosshairs when he labeled them “the enemy of the American people.”
He was following the authoritarian playbook, long consulted by the likes of Stalin and Hitler, but it was shocking to see such strongman rhetoric coming from an American leader, who swore an oath to a constitution that takes press freedoms pretty seriously.
The open animus toward journalists that Trump exemplified is increasingly a standard trait of leaders at all levels of American government, particularly, but not only, among Republicans. Hostility to the press coincides with the growing reliance by politicians on digital platforms such as social media to bypass journalists and communicate directly with constituents.
Their access to free and easy forms of mass communication allows them to indulge their animosity for reporters who might challenge them on misjudgments, misinformation and misdeeds, with the result being an electorate that is misled, misinformed and mistreated.
What was true in 1789 is true in 2022: A strong press is essential to a strong America.
Despite the First Amendment and the country’s venerable journalistic traditions, the U.S. has descended to a mediocre place among nations of the world in terms of press freedoms. The 2022 World Press Freedom Index, which measures the ability of journalists to disseminate news independently and without political or other interference, ranks the U.S. at 42, just behind Burkina Faso, which as of several days ago is ruled by a 34-year-old army captain who led a coup.
Republicans have taken press blocking to new levels in the run-up to the November elections.
“In this cycle, I’ve started to see more Republican candidates avoiding the press, blocking the press from events, and taking advantage of the fact that there is conservative media that will ask different questions and has a different audience,” Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel told NPR.
Far-right candidates, such as Pennsylvania governor hopeful Doug Mastriano and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, treat legacy media with near-total disdain. The editor of The Plain Dealer in Ohio last month ran a blank space where a photo was supposed to appear of a rally for DeSantis and U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance as a protest after those Republicans imposed restrictions that amounted to barring the press from covering the event.
“In a sign of how siloed our information sources have become,” CNN correspondent Kyung Lah wrote, “midterm campaigns, many of them Republican, are widely shutting out local papers, local TV stations and national reporters.”
Even in a state like Colorado, where Democrats dominate and one might expect challengers to court as much public exposure as they can get, many Republicans have adopted a posture of no-access scorn toward journalists.
In an unprecedented move, the Western Conservative Summit denied access to The Denver Post in June. The event featured appearances by many of the leading Republican Colorado candidates for elective office, including U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, who’s running for governor.
When Ganahl announced her running mate, Danny Moore, at an event in July, neither Ganahl nor Moore took a single question from reporters.
Newsline has experienced such aversion to press scrutiny first hand, most recently when the conservative Centennial Institute denied press credentials for Newsline journalists to cover a publicly advertised candidate forum with the Democratic and Republican candidates for the Colorado 7th Congressional District seat.
The denial came in an unsigned email and offered no explanation, but it did include the gratuitous warning, “We hope you will respect our private property rights.” The event was announced on the institute’s website, which did not specify any guest or press restrictions. I, as the Newsline editor, requested an explanation of the denial but received no reply. I sent the institute’s director, Jeff Hunt, a private message asking him to reconsider but received no reply. He apparently had strong feelings about the matter, however.
“Many news outlets should be prosecuted for fraud,” Hunt tweeted on the morning of the forum. “They don’t report the news. They are leftist propagandists who harbor personal animosity toward Christians.”
Newsline’s Sara Wilson covered the event anyway, based on a livestream, even after the Democratic candidate declined to show up. Readers can be the judge if we should be prosecuted for our reporting.
So many Republican leaders are preoccupied with so-called cancel culture and what they perceive as censorship of their views. It’s an astounding feat of hypocrisy for them to also bar journalists from events, which is a form of censorship in that it preempts news readers’ access to impartial speech about people who hold public office.
And this highlights the larger problem when candidates and holders of public office reject the role of journalists in an open democratic society — if it were merely newsrooms that suffered due to the trend, Americans might not have reason to care much, but it’s democracy itself that’s damaged.
A democracy functions only when constituents have access to reliable information about their government and the officials who lead public institutions, especially information that’s unflattering to those officials. It’s no surprise that candidates and office holders would prefer to communicate directly with constituents. That way they can inflate the good stuff and omit the bad stuff.
But that’s exactly why Americans should reject the practice. And the more a politician maligns truth tellers in the press, the more constituents should be skeptical. They will find that the “enemy of the American people” is in fact a trusted friend.
Quentin Young is the editor of Colorado Newsline, which first published this commentary.
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