The independent news organization of Duke University

Dangerous steps for democracy

Last week, conservatives gathered at CPAC to hear a host of elected officials and activists give speeches, panel discussions and networking seminars centered around conservatism and its future in America. The spotlight quickly fell upon president Donald Trump as he unleashed a barrage of attacks on the “fake news” media, echoing his adviser Steve Bannon’s words characterizing the media as “globalist and corporatist” bogeyman.

Trump has always maintained a combative relationship with political institutions. During his campaign, he derided established political parties and labor unions while pummeling journalists and the news media. This behavior continued throughout the interregnum period between the election and his inauguration. To the surprise of some moderate Republicans, it still has not ceased. As president, Trump has continued to level attacks at the press, deeming them “fake” and asserting that they are the “opposition party” and an “enemy of the people.”

This denigration of the news media prevents the journalists who form it from properly fulfilling their most important missions: holding those in power accountable and pressuring political institutions to maintain transparency. Although Trump claims to attack the media because various elements of it often acts in “opposition” to him, he errs when he treats that as a vice. It is precisely because the media stands in an opposing role to governments of the day that people should trust it. The notion that because the media attacks a partisan government it is thus lacking legitimacy is a perversion of the media’s entire purpose.

Unfortunately, it is a notion that Trump’s administration seems determined to carry forward. Following the president’s CPAC address, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, chose to bar select news organizations including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and CNN from a daily briefing—a highly aggressive and unusual move. Although we hold that Donald Trump’s attitude towards the media is toxic in and of its self, his surrogate’s choice to metastasize that attitude into action is frightening. In a democracy, presidents do not silence sources they dislike. Doing so, in the words of Sean Spicer himself, is tantamount to a step towards authoritarianism.

Trump is, of course, not the first president to criticize “the media.” Presidents before him have criticized news organizations for a host of reasons. The difference between them and Trump is that they never stooped so low as to challenge the basic integrity of the press. Ronald Reagan’s policy proposals were often mocked by pundits; George W. Bush was incessantly attacked over his decision to invade Iraq; Barack Obama was labeled as a radical socialist terrorist by several columnists. And although each of them defended themselves against attacks, they all understood that the news media is a fundamental institution of functioning democracy and that their personal spats with a few anchors or columnists were not worth undermining the news media for. The idea of suppressing media and mocking truth are something we might expect out of Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not a U.S. President. Trump’s decision to not only take up those actions, but hold them high as the cornerstones of the conservative movement at CPAC was ill-judged and unfortunate.

Trump has shown a willful refusal to hold himself accountable for his words and actions. Instead of rectifying that, he has chosen to frighten and silence organizations that can hold him accountable. That is bad news for a democracy and worse news for the truth.

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