Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona gave a speech this week about how important truth is to our democracy and how President Donald Trump lies a lot. He especially took aim at Trump talking about “fake news” all the time and even referring to the press as the “enemy of the people.” Flake then went crazy.
Viciously, mindlessly and inexcusably, he compared Trump to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union dictator who killed millions of people and also used the phrase “enemy of the people.” Flake summed up Trump’s media anger as despotic, shameful and repulsive, telling us in so many words that he is more suspect as a public enemy than the press is or ever has been.
Long live a democratically crucial free press, but please get it, ladies and gentlemen, that the not-really-Stalinesque Trump has resorted only to anti-press words, not action, and that one of his chief threats — to change libel laws — is nonsense. There is no federal libel law, but lots of state laws that Washington is not about to touch, and there is a Supreme Court ruling making it especially hard for public officials to sue for libel.
For hands-on presidential press abuse, look at President Woodrow Wilson, as one example. He took egregious steps during and after World War I to regulate newspapers saying things he did not like.
We learn from Reason magazine how Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the press spewed out “poisonous propaganda” and that “freedom of the press” was an “overworked phrase” leading to dastardly consequences. His administration helped create the Federal Communications Commission that reviewed radio licenses every six months and soon had networks vowing they would never criticize him.
When President Barack Obama wasn’t slapping Fox News around, his administration was spying on reporters or, as one official admitted, misleading them on the Iran deal. New York Times reporter James Risen called the administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation” because of threatening a record number of reporters with jail if they did not reveal sources in classified information leaks. The Obama team also set a record one year in denying or censoring materials requested by citizens under the Freedom of Information Act. Less than a fourth received what they asked for, while 596,095 did not.
Trump handed out his fake news awards this week with critics responding that media inaccuracies have always been with us and that he was taking on an opinion column and tweets, too. Keep in mind, however, that there have been studies by researchers at Harvard, the Pew Research Center and the Media Research Center showing that at the beginning of the administration, in the middle of the first year and at the end of the first year, media were far more negative about him than about any president in recent history.
Well, it has been said, there was much more to be negative about. But the extent and intensity of the negativity coming from some news outlets has been more like a virulent crusade than straight news coverage. No one with open eyes and unplugged ears can have missed the overreaching and an eschewing of norms right up there with Trump himself. While news outlets as a whole still exhibit manifest virtues, some may well have done more to damage trust in the press than Trump.
Flake and Trump have been feuding, and Flake is not running for re-election this year. His speech had some good points, but the Stalin comparison was atrocious. It is true that the Soviets did use the phrase “enemy of the people” frequently, but it had its origins in ancient Rome, was used repeatedly during the French Revolution and became more common after a drama by the great 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
Its title was “An Enemy of the People” and it was about a physician combatting fake news.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.