‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,’ Jefferson said. Journalists must not stand down.

When it comes to freedom of the press in the United States, I truly believe we are at a crisis point. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump gone after journalists and publications he doesn’t like (at times even boycotting them). Journalists are being targeted and are part of his stump speeches on the campaign trail. He even encourages violence and aggression toward them.

Now the president and his allies are taking his war with the media a step further with a new tactic of digging up dirt on specific reporters. As described in a memo viewed and quoted by Axios, the group says it will circulate the damaging information to Trump-friendly media outlets and others as well. 

The top “fake news” targets named in the tactical memo are CNN and MSNBC, “all broadcast networks,” the New York Times, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and their reporters and editors. Axios has also reported, based on unnamed participants, that pro-Trump groups are preparing to attack alleged bias by social media platforms as part of Trump’s 2020 re-election strategy.

Press freedom and trust are at risk

While these tactics are unconventional, it’s more important to focus on the real issue at hand: Freedom of the press and how this will erode trust in the fourth estate. It is critical that the press be allowed to do its job, which means fact-checking and reporting. While today’s news cycle has become hyper-partisan, it is still important for journalists to be held accountable — and for them to hold our government accountable. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

It’s no secret that during the Obama administration there were frequent complaints about right-of-center media outlets for pandering to a specific viewpoint, and they were sent to the back of the line or criticized for what was deemed unfair coverage. But it is hypocritical for the Trump administration to do the same thing (and to a much greater and more dangerous extent). So far we have seen the Trump administration single out journalists and outlets for what he believes to be “fake news,” and even try to revoke White House passes from two reporters. But all outlets deserve the right to report on the happenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because, after all, it is the people’s house.

This rhetoric against the media has also become dangerous. In October, there was a series of scary moments when suspicious packages containing faulty pipe bombs were found on or near the properties of many Trump targets, from Barack Obama and the Clintons to CNN’s studios. I would hate to jump to conclusions as to why explosive devices were sent to these places, and a judge did not accept the defense argument that Trump’s rhetoric contributed to these crimes. Yet it is important to note the language that has consistently come from the White House about journalists and the media as well as Democrats.

Trump ramping up, not calming down

Has this become the new normal? If you are a public official or a member of the press, should you constantly be on edge and fear for your safety or even your life?

What’s more, in the wake of the targeted attacks Trump has only ramped up the attacks on the media by calling the press “truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” in an April tweet. It is important to remember that leadership comes from the top and America currently has a president who advocates for “body slamming” reporters, mocks and ridicules mainstream media networks and their anchors, calls the media the “enemy of the American people” refers to Democrats as “extremists” and an “angry, ruthless, unhinged mob,” joked about punching protesters in the face, and casts significant blame and name calls Democratic leadership. Trump must stop his own fear-mongering rhetoric against the news media and call for an end to this type of rhetoric overall.

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While White House officials are trying to punish various networks for what they deem unfair coverage, they are missing opportunities to correct the record that they feel misrepresents their agenda, and to reach a broader audience. The administration needs to accept that President Trump represents all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him. And with that should come the understanding that not all Americans watch the same news programs.

Agree to disagree. It’s free speech.

Throughout the eight years of the Obama administration, conservatives voiced their dissatisfaction with Obama’s progressive policies; now it is crucial for conservatives to respect the right of those who disagree with the current president to voice their concerns. Free speech is a foundation of our society and vital to a healthy, vibrant democracy.

Trump consistently belittles reporters he disagrees with and will shut them out from asking questions, but it’s important that they keep asking and don’t stand down. The First Amendment isn’t selective; it applies to everyone. Trump would be smart to recognize that the First Amendment he so ardently defended during the campaign also applies to his adversaries and those whose political opinions are different from his.

As the 2020 presidential campaign moves forward, journalists should not fear digging for the truth and should always strive for accuracy in their reporting. They are the guardians of a pillar of our democracy.

Independent Ashley Pratte, a former Republican, is a communications strategist and a board member of Republican Women for Progress. Previously she was director of media relations and public affairs at the American Legislative Exchange Council and  director of media relations and a consultant for Better For America. Follow her on Twitter @AshPratte

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