With the inauguration of President Trump and a Congress in Republican control, it was clear that there would be few checks on this administration. A handful of Republicans might express discontent with some of the president’s more outlandish remarks. Yet the vast majority would be content to go along to repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact massive tax cuts for the wealthy. It quickly became apparent that there would be only two checks on the president’s potential abuse of power: the rule of law and the news media.

Throughout the year, federal judges—including some appointed by Republican presidents—have ruled that the Muslim ban is unconstitutional, even as President Trump has sought to undermine the judiciary’s constitutional role as an independent check on the executive by ridiculing those judges with which he disagrees.

The free press has exposed Trump’s business ties to Russia, connections between members of his campaign and Russian officials, and conflicts of interest as a result of his refusal to make public his tax returns or divest of his assets.

Not surprisingly—given that Candidate Trump promised to loosen libel laws to sue reporters—President Trump has reacted angrily to any challenges to his version of reality. He has dubbed outlets he dislikes “fake news” and referred to a free press as “the enemy of the people.” He recently threatened to revoke NBC News’ broadcasting license. Trump’s chorus of enablers in the administration and on Capitol Hill have abetted his ruthless attacks by expressing contempt for media outlets not named Fox News, barring reporters from filming in the Senate hallways, and labelling journalists as “cosmopolitan” elites. His administration has threatened criminal prosecution of government whistleblowers who represent critical sources for journalists.

Trump’s chorus of media-bashing enablers has extended to Duke, where a Chronicle columnist who had previously asserted that Stephen Miller’s “individual contributions to the development of this university are undeniable,” recently trashed the media’s critical role in American democracy by equating Trump’s denigration of the news media with the media’s supposed “credibility crisis.”

To understand why this notion of media culpability is fallacious, it is important to consider Trump’s penchant for lies. Reports have shown that Trump has lied virtually every day he has been president. His lies span from the trivial, such as his inflation of the crowd size at his inauguration and claim to be the most “presidential” leader since Lincoln, to more consequential untruths, such as his denial of climate change, his moral equivalency whoppers about the protestors in Charlottesville, and his repeated canards about the Affordable Care Act failing.

Trump’s lies have enormous consequences on issues affecting the American people. His untruths on healthcare justified legislation that would have stripped coverage from tens of millions and raised premiums on the most vulnerable. His lies regarding the economy support massive tax cuts for himself and his family (including more than $1 billion in estate tax savings for the Trumps alone) and the wealthy that will blow a hole in the deficit and prevent investment in infrastructure and education. His denial of climate change and basic science served as his justification to leave the Paris Climate Accords and to rescind commonsense regulations on carbon emissions. His baseless claim that millions voted illegally in 2016 justified his creation of a so-called “voter integrity commission,” whose goal is to suppress turnout among minorities and younger voters. And his repeated lies that there is no evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election—despite the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community—impede effective policy that can prevent a future attack on our nation’s sovereign political processes.

Is there really a moral equivalence between Trump’s blatant lies and reporters’ attempts to do their job in such a challenging political environment? Is a supposed “credibility crisis” facing mainstream media outlets really the fault of reporters who generally strive for objectivity, or is it due more to the fact that the president prefers to attack reporters personally, rather than address the content in their articles? Would the nation really be better served by a servile media a la some tin pot republic, as Trump and his supporters on campus and elsewhere seem to prefer?

To be sure, in the course of fulfilling their mission, reporters should be careful about how they use anonymous sources. To provide transparency to readers, it is always preferable to identify sources. Anonymity should only be granted as a last resort, and only if the protection of a person’s identity is important to convey vital information to the public. Yet, anonymous sources have historically played a fundamental role in enabling journalists to bring attention to abuses of power. 

One need look no further than Mark Felt, the FBI agent more commonly known as “Deep Throat,” who provided critical information—anonymously—to Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about the unfolding Watergate scandal. Or Daniel Ellsberg, who supplied the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times anonymously, making public decades of government lies and helping turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.

If anything, the media sometimes seems too cautious or cowed, and occasionally lapses into a tendency of false equivalence. A report released at the end of last year by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy revealed a false equivalence in the coverage of the two major candidates in 2016. The report’s author, Thomas E. Patterson concluded, “When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.”

While reporters can make mistakes, partisan attacks against the media are not intended to correct the record, or to help the Fourth Estate fulfill its dual mission of informing the public and holding officials accountable. These attacks serve only to score cheap political points by delegitimizing reporters’ attempts to do their job. It is healthy to view news reports with a degree of skepticism, when there are few checks on such a dangerous president. Yet at its best, the news media strives to provide objectivity and facts, essential in a democracy whose survival requires faith in the political process and an informed citizenry.  

Max Labaton is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.