We live in a unique time in which our freedom of expression has never been so vulnerable to criticism and restrictions. From “fake news” to “enemy of the people,” the current presidency has changed the narrative surrounding this important part of the First Amendment to benefit political agendas. This article will explore why framing the press as an enemy to the people has become popular among many Americans, the consequences of such ideology, and the responsibility our government leaders have in combating the issue.
The press faces social, technological, and political realities that make it susceptible for what RonNell Andersen Jones, J.D. and Lisa Grow Sun, J.D. call “enemy construction.” This kind of narrative would have been likely to fail just a generation ago, but is spreading like wildfire in today’s mainstream culture.
In their research, Jones and Sun explain that one of the primary functions of constructing enemies is to define and unify a political community and to solidify ties with potential allies. It is in most powerful political parties’ nature to do so and Trump’s anti-press campaign is no exception to the phenomenon. The current administration has successfully barred major news organizations from attending daily White House briefings and justified these actions by classifying the mainstream press as “the enemy of the American People.” Declaring animosity towards targeted groups is technique that in our day often distracts from other, more controversial substantive issues or scandals.
Part of the reason why the press is so vulnerable to enemy construction is its diminishing public reputation and sustained attacks from conservative media. According to Gallup polling, Americans’ trust in the media has plummeted to its lowest point since Gallup began polling on media confidence levels in 1972. Critics of the press argue that this trend is self-inflicted as a growing obsession for ratings has fed into a frivolous type of journalism among major news stations.
Ultimately, the press is much more prone to enemy construction than in the past because the President no longer needs the cooperation of the media to carry his own message to the general American public. In the past, the press relied on politicians for access to information while politicians relied on the press for access to the public. Thus the two sides had to have a priority relationship even if a President distrusted the press, feared it, or hated it.
Because our leaders can now speak directly to the public –more commonly through social media– there is no longer the same incentive to preserve the relationship as there once was.
Treating the press as an enemy undermines some of the most important functions of journalism. The government has an especially grave responsibility to have a good relationship with the press for many reasons including, but not limited to, the ones described below.
Chilling effect. Successful campaigning of enemy construction of the press can cause courts to be convinced that restrictions to First Amendment press rights should be allowed. Even if these attempts fail, aggressive prosecutions or lawsuits could cause “chilling effects” on at least some media outlets or journalists from exercising their First Amendment rights. The tone set by the President alone impacts the climate and culture for journalism throughout the country.
Abuse of power. If the government constructs fear-based narratives focused on enemies who threaten the public’s well-being, it can use that panic among Americans to justify limiting its own transparency and withholding information both from those enemies and from the public as a whole. Administrations become more capable of tearing down other institutions and constructing other enemies. This can include the judicial branch, immigrants, or even members of certain races or religions. In a society in which ordinary citizens have limited time and resources to observe the operations of the government firsthand, we rely on the press to conveniently provide the facts of those operations, acting as a proxy to expose truth and transparency. If this function is tampered with, the public will have less access to information that can only be gained by intensive reporting on location and will be less able to digest and prioritize the information it does receive.
Shortage of information. Because the American press serves a “watchdog function,” undermining the press is detrimental to participatory society. Reporters play a watchdog role in the sense that their jobs are designed to protect and expose corruption among public officers and employees by rigorously checking facts provided and assertions made by government officials. A reduction in this function deprives us of significant information about what the government is doing. Without the information provided by the press, most of us would be unable to vote intelligently or to form opinions on the administration of government generally. Because the press provides context, reveals impact, and illuminates the nuances beyond the facts, a reduction of this educator function would debilitate the flow of important information in our democracy.
Essentially, this undermining of vital press functions damages democracy and empowers the administration to more easily construct enemies of other critical institutions and of vulnerable groups.
There are examples and events going on around us that perfectly illustrate and demonstrate the deterioration of the relationship between government and press which leads to overall distrust among the public. It is more important now than ever to pay attention to your leaders on a local and national scale to see how much they truly value their relationship with the press and essentially the constituents they represent.