California Forum

Buckle up, news media: Political radar shows turbulence ahead

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Our newly inaugurated president, Donald Trump, talks, thinks and writes in 140 characters. He is also our first exclamation-point president. Some examples from his tweets: Fool! Stupid! Sad! Loser! Incompetent! Clown! A mess! Total joke! Dummy! Fake news! Sleaze!

The majority of those were aimed at reporters, columnists and commentators as he attempted, often successfully, to delegitimize and intimidate the news media.

In addition, Esquire magazine reports that a senior Trump administration official called the press “the opposition party” and threatened to evict reporters from the White House press room.

So legitimate journalists, buckle your seat belts: The political radar shows turbulence ahead for the next four years.

But it will not be the first time a president used the press as his foil. There have been many.

President John Kennedy once said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” But, yet, he was deeply opposed to the Freedom of Information Act.

President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Freedom of Information Act, also didn’t like it or want it, according to his then-aide Bill Moyers. “He had to be dragged screaming into that signing ceremony,” Moyers has said.

President Richard Nixon turned his vice president, Spiro Agnew, loose on the press and he made front pages and nightly news with lines such as, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club – the hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.” Of course, that was not long before he resigned in disgrace after pleading no contest to income tax evasion.

And remember that the men who adopted the First Amendment were not journalistic innocents, nor were they lovers of newspapers. The journalism of their day made no pretense to political objectivity or fairness. It was pointed and partisan, in bad taste and filled with distortions.

Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton used the newspapers to attack their opposition in words that would make a lot of today’s political back-and-forth sound like a Sunday-school lesson. And some of the same delegates who sat in the first Congress later passed the first Alien and Sedition Acts, suggesting that implications of free speech and free press were still obscure.

But as the Supreme Court has said time and time again, a free press isn’t an angelic press, or a nice press, but the alternative of having no press is much worse.

The First Amendment is just 45 words long, a bit more than two tweets, for those attached at the fingers to Twitter.

“It’s easy to understand,” the late Jim Carey, a distinguished journalism professor at Columbia University, often explained to his students. “It says that the government can’t tell you how to worship. It says that if you have something to say you can say it. If you want to, you can write it down and publish it. If you want to talk about it with others, you can assemble. And if you have a grievance, you can let the government know about it, and nobody can stop you.”

That doesn’t say the press shouldn’t be challenged. We make mistakes. And we are often late catching up with what has been started by citizens exercising their rights.

But do we really want to delegitimize and demonize the news media and strip the First Amendment of its meaning?

Let’s hear from a son of Sacramento, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: “The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is besides the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.”

Slightly long for a single tweet, Mr. Justice, but I would give it an exclamation point.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Co. He can be reached at gregory@calmatters.org.

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