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Editorial: The enemy is not the media

The Detroit News

Tension always exists between presidents and the press. The executive branch and the fourth estate maintain a wariness that, depending on the administration, can become openly adversarial.

For the most part, that’s healthy. Reporters and the White House shouldn’t get too cozy. Challenging presidential spin and poking the ribs of the world’s most powerful person all go into performing the watchdog role assigned to the press by the Constitution.

While it’s rare for a president to believe he was treated fairly by the press, some have managed to enjoy a measure of cordiality (Jimmy Carter played softball with reporters). Most have simply tolerated the press corps as a necessary evil.

President Donald Trump sees nothing necessary about the press, only the evil. He said as much last week, tweeting that the nation’s news gatherers are the “enemy of the American people.”

Trump rarely weighs the impact of his words, particularly the 140 characters he posts to Twitter. But the words of a president matter, perhaps more than those of anyone else in the world. Trump, whose presidential campaign benefited hugely from media fascination in its nascent stage, must know that undermining the credibility of the independent press is damaging to the democracy.

The public has few agenda-free advocates outside the media. It must be able to trust that what it reads in newspapers and hears on newscasts is reliable and presented without a hidden purpose. Diffusement of the media has already cut into that confidence. The rise of partisan outlets on the internet and cable TV has created the impression that all news is biased.

But most of the corruption that’s uncovered in this country is still unearthed by the press. Most of the self-dealing by politicians is exposed by independent news outlets. The information critical to making informed political choices comes almost exclusively from the media.

For Trump to so vilely attack those public watchdogs to rally his base and deflect criticism of his performance is despicable. And it’s not just thin-skinned journalists saying so.

Trump’s defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, a man who knows something about the nation’s true enemies, does not put the press in that camp. Asked about Trump’s tweet, Mattis said, “I don’t have any issues with the press myself.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008, told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that although he often hates the media, “the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.”

“If you want to preserve — I’m very serious now — if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

The Founders understood that. It explains why freedom of the press and speech make up the First Amendment. Trump may feel the media is the enemy of his presidency, and he may even make a good case that it has treated him unfairly.

But it has never been the enemy of the American people. The danger of creating such an impression is that words become action. And a people whose freedom depends on an unfettered press will be open to erosion of press freedoms.

Too many on both the left and the right already seek to limit free speech and press freedoms to further their own agendas. The nature of the news business is that it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Some it makes angry. Those who prefer to operate in the dark find aggressive reporting an annoyance.

Newspapers and other outlets don’t expect to be loved. It would nice to be respected. But mostly what we want is a clear understanding that we are not the enemy. Trump should take it back.