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Horowitz: Flake & McCain Sound the Alarm on Trump’s Attacks on Free Press

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, both members of President Trump’s own party, sounded the alarm last week about the corrosive impacts at home and abroad of President Trump’s constant attacks on our free press.  Flake did so in an eloquent speech on the floor of the Senate, while McCain wrote an opinion piece published in The Washington Post.

As both Arizona Senators pointed out, Trump reflexively calls any news story he doesn’t like “fake news’’ and viciously goes after the reporters and outlets responsible for stories critical of him.  His defenders say he is merely fighting back against a highly biased and negative media, If Trump actually used his bully to fight back with facts and correct the record, this defense would have some merit. But he does no such thing; instead using his twitter account and the other communication tools of the presidency to proclaim falsehood after falsehood, issue threats, and launch personal attacks. For example, despite the overwhelming evidence and the concurrence of  his entire National Security Team, he continues to call the fact that Russia meddled in our election in 2016 a ‘hoax’ as well as still argue without any facts on his side that he actually won the popular vote because more than 3 million people voted illegally—a number he pulled out of thin air.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan in words that anticipated Donald Trump, famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” On the Senate floor last week, Senator Flake voiced a similar sentiment, saying, "Between the mighty and the modest, the truth is the great leveler.” In his speech, Flake accurately asserted that "2017 was a year which saw the truth -- objective, empirical, evidence-based truth -- more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government."  He went on to say, "It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted."

Without a shared understanding of the facts of an issue or situation, it is next to impossible to achieve common ground, which is the basis for principled compromise. So it is no wonder that under President Trump, there has been precious little of it. But despite President Trump’s best efforts to create an alternative reality and discredit the media outlets that he doesn’t like, our free press has become in many ways reinvigorated, breaking story after story about the dysfunction of the Trump White House and the actions of his Administration.

As a result, Trump’s attacks on the free press may be doing even more damage abroad in nations that do not have our tradition of a robust free press, not our constitutional protections. As John McCain argued, Trump’s “unrelenting attacks on the integrity of American journalists and news outlets… has provided cover for repressive regimes to follow suit. The phrase “fake news” — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.”

In 2017, 262 journalists were imprisoned around the world., according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The United States under presidents of both parties has played an important role in fighting for expanded press freedom in all corners of the globe.  Unfortunately, we are no longer viewed as a beacon for freedom; but as a source of excuses for tyrants.  Anyone who wants to defend President Trump’s over-the-top attacks on our free press must honestly reckon with those high costs.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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