Commentary: The real ‘enemy of the people’ is silence

As President Donald Trump points to CNN's Jim Acosta, a White House aide takes the microphone from Acosta during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Let’s be serious. The Salt Lake Tribune is not the enemy of the people. Neither is the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times or the Associated Press. Not even the Deseret News!

Despite wild claims from the president, they — and most other mainstream media outlets, whether they be national or local, broadcast, digital or print — are not in the business of producing “fake news.” They pursue fact-based reporting. Facts, by definition, must be consistent with reality, even as those facts are sought by imperfect reporters prone to mistakes that are inevitably corrected.

The discovery and presentation of facts is the media’s informative role.

Factual reporting in mainstream journalism is often accompanied by two wide-ranging companions — analysis and opinion.

Analysis is the attempt of individuals with some level of experience or expertise to explain what the facts mean. That is the media’s interpretive role.

Opinion, or commentary (which is what I am writing here), is the attempt of an individual or organization to advocate for a position or for a course of action, and even to challenge a reader to consider changing his mind. That is the media’s persuasive role.

All of those roles assumed by the press — informing, analyzing and persuading — are enshrined and protected in the Constitution of the United States of America.

A robust democracy should expect and celebrate one set of facts and a multitude of opinions.

Some mainstream newspapers label certain interpretive offerings as “analysis.” A great many affix the label “opinion” when that is what they are presenting. Cable news channels broadly fail to differentiate their offerings, and all news reporting is subject to some point of view. Nevertheless, a thoughtful news consumer should be able to differentiate facts from analysis and opinion, whether on a page or on a screen, and whether they are labeled or not.

Donald Trump is not an example of a thoughtful news consumer. His simplistic response to any published opinion or analysis or even fact that he does not like is to brand it as “fake news.”

More disturbing, and even more consequential, the president has launched an attack on the legitimacy of the institution of the press, which he recklessly calls “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s vilification of the Fourth Estate is part of his broader assault on objective truth.

The president’s unsuccessful attempt last month to arbitrarily yank the press pass of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta (combative reporter that he is) signaled an escalation of his assault on unfettered reporting.

A more sinister subtext runs through Trump’s response to Saudi Arabia’s sanctioned murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump’s willingness to look the other way in the face of that horrific crime sends a chill wind against freedom of the press around the world. The killing of journalists is often used as a barometer of press freedom.

The president’s response to his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Khashoggi’s murder was ordered by the Saudi crown prince reached the pinnacle of cynicism: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. … We may never know.”

Kudos to Sen.-elect Mitt Romney for calling the president’s response “inconsistent with an enduring foreign policy, with our national interest, with basic human rights and with American greatness."

Romney was also right in calling out the president for vilifying the media. In a web post, Romney said denigrating the media “diminishes an institution that is critical to democracy, both here and abroad. As a political tactic, it may be brilliant, but it comes with a large cost to the cause of freedom.”

The president needs to be held accountable for his assault on the cause of freedom. Not just by Mitt Romney, but by you and by me. We will have no better government or better leadership or more freedom of the press than we demand.

The Saudi crown prince joins Vladimir Putin and infamous autocrats around the world who are accused of silencing critical voices in the press. They can get away with it only if they can get away with it.

Think about that. And subscribe to two newspapers.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Scott Howell, chairman of the Pioneer Park Coalition, speaks at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015.

Scott N. Howell, Salt Lake City, is a former Utah Senate minority leader.

Return to Story