Editorial: Journalists are watchdog neighbors, not enemy of the people

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have long decried unfavorable press coverage as erroneous or incomplete, seeking to blunt the impact of reporting that holds those in power accountable.

President Donald Trump, however, has taken that tactic to the extreme, labeling stories he doesn’t like as “fake news” and branding journalists as “the enemy of the people” — both dangerous distortions designed to untether the administration from inconvenient facts.

While his attacks on the press date back to the campaign, Trump has ramped up his rhetoric in recent months as the special counsel’s investigation has revealed more evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president is growing desperate as the inquiry moves toward his son, his former attorney and other members of his inner circle. We know his endgame: CBS reporter Lesley Stahl says Trump told her after the election that he attacks the press “to discredit you all and demean you all, so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Journalists play an essential role in informing voters and holding leaders accountable, a function enshrined in the Constitution as part of the checks and balances that keep our democracy healthy. We stand in solidarity today with the editorial boards of hundreds of U.S. newspapers defending the rigorous, truth-driven work by journalists and opposing Trump’s cynical efforts to dismiss that reporting as “fake news.”

CASTILLO: It’s getting harder to be a journalist. But we soldier on

We’re a country that’s accustomed to spin from our politicians, but Trump tries to operate by facts of his own making: He issued a whopping 4,229 false or misleading statements in his first 558 days in office, the Washington Post Fact Checker found, spewing untruths with increased frequency over the past six months.

“Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump said at the annual VFW convention July 24 in Kansas City, adding: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

But we know from journalists’ meticulously sourced reporting that top members of Trump’s campaign met in June 2016 with a Kremlin-connected attorney, eager to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, knowing the support came from the Russian government. We heard Trump’s public plea at a July 2016 press conference: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 (Clinton) emails that are missing.” We know that same day, Russian government hackers tried to break into the email accounts of several Clinton staffers and dozens of her campaign workers, according to indictments filed last month by special counsel Robert Mueller. His inquiry has led to charges against four Trump associates, 25 Russians, three Russian companies and two other people.

Fake news? More like alarming truths.

Beyond the damage done at home, Trump’s verbal attacks on reporters — blasting them as “disgusting” and “sick” and “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” — put journalists around the world at greater risk. Strongmen from Poland to the Philippines have been emboldened to crack down on free speech, knowing the U.S. won’t object.

EDITORIAL: We must embrace our patriotic duty to speak out

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who is stepping down this month as the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, told the Guardian this week that Trump’s repeated branding of journalists as “the enemy of the people” is “getting very close to incitement to violence.” Indeed, Trump’s anti-media tirades have so whipped up his supporters that journalists now bring their own bodyguards when covering the president’s rallies.

This isn’t normal. And it’s dangerous to our democracy.

Even here in Austin, we occasionally hear from readers who dismiss local stories they don’t like as “fake news,” whether it’s coverage of a high-profile murder trial, an explanation of Austin’s once-segregated school system or an article noting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ incendiary lies about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

But it’s the job of Statesman reporters to bring you articles that may make you uncomfortable. You should know what officials are doing (or not doing) to safeguard schools from shooters. You should know why children on Medicaid aren’t getting the care they need, or why City Hall initially shrugged off significant billing errors for some Austin utility customers.

We care about these issues because we’re your neighbors. We’re members of the PTA. We’re taxpayers who feel the squeeze as Austin becomes less affordable. We worship beside you at church and volunteer next to you at pet rescue organizations. We share your frustration when road projects run late and over budget, because we’re stuck in traffic every day, too.

We’re not the enemy of the people. We work to hold our leaders accountable, on the people’s behalf.

So do our colleagues in the Washington press corps.

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Last fall, former CBS anchor and sometime Austinite Dan Rather told Forbes that “the institution of a free press in America is in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps any moment in this nation’s history.” Trump’s assaults on the press, Rather said, exceed the attacks leveled by President Richard Nixon.

“The key thing is not to be intimidated,” Rather said. “You don’t want a compliant and kiss-up press — that is dangerous to society and to the country.”

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