Former President Donald Trump branded the news media the “enemy of the people” on dozens of occasions during his time in office, whether to castigate a journalist on Twitter for unfavorable press coverage or to incite chants of “CNN sucks” at campaign rallies. The phrase “enemy of the people” has been historically used by autocrats across all eras, from the Roman Empire to Germany’s Third Reich to the Soviet Union. Trump brought this derogatory label and its ugly history to the presidency. He not only used it regularly but infected our national discourse with it, leading tens of thousands of Americans to act upon his words.
On the tame end of the spectrum, action against this supposed “enemy” often involved boycotting certain news organizations deemed unsympathetic toward Trump. From there it escalated to online harassment, with relentless bullying that targeted individual writers and editors whose words were smeared before they were even read. The most extreme response was to enact violence on people in the news media, which is exactly what occurred at the Capitol Hill riots on January 6.
“Murder the Media” was etched into a door of the Capitol. TV crews were chased out as they tried to capture this egregious, yet historic moment in our nation’s history. Beyond enduring verbal abuse and threats, a CBS reporter received a grim warning from protesters that law enforcement wouldn’t protect journalists — they were on their own and surrounded by belligerent Trump supporters.
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But the most heartbreaking part is that the rioters were right. The police weren’t kind to members of the news media either. A video journalist for the Washington Post and her colleague were detained by police for filming the riots after the 6 p.m. curfew. Outside Washington, in Vancouver, Canada, a photographer was punched in the face at a small rally of Trump supporters.
Trump inspired this sort of behavior. He took to his now-deactivated Twitter account, which had over 80 million followers, to deride, mock, and humiliate reporters he didn’t like. Even outside the Twitter world, Trump antagonized reporters at his rallies. One of his worst offenses, often forgotten in his slew of controversies, occurred when he mocked a disabled reporter. Even still, Trump got elected.
As a Black high school student and aspiring journalist, I found it revolting to see members of the media be demonized and called the enemy of the people. I believe journalism is a public service; it’s the best way for me to tell stories and advocate for workable solutions. It’s where I see myself making the greatest impact. But that resolve grows weaker when people like Trump constantly beat down on the press. Knowing I would face particular vitriol by the insurrectionists at the Capitol as a Black man and a member of the news media makes my stomach churn. Yet, I am still gripped by the industry and believe in it firmly.
Certainly, Trump is not the first president to disparage the press. President Richard Nixon had his own scores to settle with the press, going so far as to ban all reporters from the opening ceremony of his presidential library and museum. But there is one key difference between Trump and Nixon—the internet. The proliferation of misinformation online was critical to justifying Trump’s relentless attacks on the press.
Unlike Nixon, Trump had a major cable news network to serve as his propaganda machine. Fox News gave legitimacy in a way never done before. The narrative turned from “Mainstream media is biased against Republicans” into the “Mainstream media wants to kill democracy.” The former is a legitimate claim that does have at least some truth to it. The latter is a complete desecration of the job of the journalist by claiming they are killing the democracy they serve to protect. Trump not only pushed for this dangerous lie but cemented it in the minds of millions of Americans.
Knowing I would face particular vitriol by the insurrectionists at the Capitol as a Black man and a member of the news media makes my stomach churn.
So it was incredibly refreshing when Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary under President Biden, greeted reporters cordially and did something Trump press secretaries almost never did: take questions from the press and answer appropriately. By contrast, Trump’s press secretaries went into the briefing room actively seeking war. They went out there and lied until they couldn’t anymore. That’s when they ended daily press briefings altogether under Sarah Sanders.
Biden will likely have his own set of controversies and scandals that will hang over his presidency (hopefully not to the magnitude and frequency of his predecessor). He won’t always get “good” coverage and I’m sure his press secretary won’t always be as happy to take questions. But for the future of the news media, and democracy itself, he must actively restore faith and dignity in the media institution as a pillar of our society.
Holding regular press briefings is a good first step. But even more than that, he must restore confidence in the news media. He must reach across the aisle and live up to his reputation, to get Republicans (not the fascist ones that supported the insurrection) to boldly come out and condemn the deep state conspiracy theories and reject Trump’s “enemy of the state” claims.
Without restoring faith in the news media as an even semi-reliable source of information, it will crumble in a few years time. And even if I get there before it’s destroyed, I might get killed for doing my job.