President Trump has consistently berated the media, in ways too numerous to mention here. But many analysts believe he crossed a line with a series of tweets earlier this month suggesting that networks should lose their broadcast licenses for ‘fake news’ (ie: stories that displease the President). During a photo op with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump opined, “it is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”
Clearly, these are not the words of someone who understands, much less honors, our First Amendment, or the history of tyranny our founding fathers confronted. But is President Trump’s excoriation of the press unprecedented?
In a recent article for Los Angeles Lawyer, a publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Stephen Rohde, a longtime member of our Advisory Board, traces the shameful chapters in American history when Presidents have attacked, censored, punished and imprisoned members of the press. Trump’s actions may not be new, but that doesn’t make them any less alarming. Rohde points out that as “the founders understood and subsequent history has tragically confirmed, discrediting and stifling the press and abandoning the truth are hallmarks of the rise of authoritarian governments.” He cites The 14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism by Lawrence Britt, noting that they “resonate ominously today.”
James Madison’s first draft of the First Amendment declared
“the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
And it behooves us all to understand how Presidents — even great ones — have sought to undermine press freedoms. Rohde’s timely article teaches that important lesson. As the article concludes, the “teachings of history are clear: in their own time, Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, and Nixon, blinded by fear and ambition, made the mistake of treating the press as their enemy – although this was not always clear to their contemporaries, who themselves were often blinded by fear and superficial calls to patriotism. If only more people had seen it while it was happening. If only Lincoln had learned from Adams, and Wilson had learned from both of them, and Nixon had learned from the rest. If only Trump learns from all of them.”