Another ill-considered tweet by our petulant president?
That it is a complete sentence, a coherent thought, and grammatically correct should have demonstrated it never came from President Donald Trump’s mind (if you need proof, here is his Feb. 17 tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”)
No, it was a lament by perhaps one of America’s greatest thinkers — Trump would never be confused with a thinker — President Thomas Jefferson in a June 11, 1807, letter to John Norvell, a teenager who would later become a co-founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jefferson and the newspapers of his day were at war. But he lost. Because in a war between the media and the president, the president will always lose. As U.S. Rep. Charles Brownson, R-Ind., used to say, and which has since become known as Greener’s Law, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
Sage advice that Trump should heed.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University bears this out. Despite widespread unhappiness with the mainstream media and its low approval ratings, 52 percent of Americans trust the media to tell them the truth about important issues while only 37 percent trust Trump. More importantly, while 50 percent said they believe the media have treated Trump unfairly, 61 percent think Trump has treated the media unfairly.
Additionally, according to a 2013 Pew poll, the vast majority of Americans believe the press keeps politicians in line and succeeds in its watchdog role.
Unlike Trump, Jefferson did not have access to this kind of polling data, yet he knew this instinctively and despite his poor treatment in the broadsheets of the day and his general disgust with newspapers, he almost always supported the freedom of the press.
Indeed, I think most Americans are familiar with Jefferson’s Jan. 16, 1787, letter to Edward Carrington — even though most would have no clue who Carrington was — in which Jefferson expressed his profound belief in a free press:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
For the last two decades I often have criticized the media on these pages for its leftist bias. That critique is earned and warranted. The vast majority of the reporters in the national media are leftists.
That being said, I trust the facts of what is reported by mainstream media outlets. If The New York Times or The Washington Post tells me something, I will likely believe it. And, if they get it wrong, I trust that they will correct the record. Why? Because they do. That is the mark of a real media outlet. A newspaper’s stock in trade is its reputation.
Will I have to filter out the bias? Often. But anyone of average intelligence who is somewhat informed would be able to filter the bias. And there is no such thing as being unbiased, anyway. A newspaper’s goal should be fairness. It is not so easy to shed your own personal biases, but you can always be fair.
Granted, I am a newspaper man. I began my working relationship with newspapers in 1978, when I started tossing the Dayton Daily News onto doorsteps at the age of 11. I have been published in newspapers across the nation and I am no leftist. Newspapers often publish contrary opinions. Indeed, we do so on these very pages.
I love newspapers and I guarantee you, most of those in the media are hardworking folks who strive to get the story and get it right. They almost always use sources from multiple sides and they almost never fabricate news.
Are there bad journalists? Certainly. But that is the exception, not the rule.
Even with the leftist bias of most media outlets, the level of partisanship in today’s newspapers pales in comparison to that during the Jefferson years. Still, Jefferson was a stalwart defender of the press, at least most of the time.
John Adams, a cousin of mine, used the Alien and Sedition Acts to jail newspaper editors (something Trump would love) who criticized Adams or the Congress (Vice President Jefferson was exempted from this protection). Caught up in the dragnet was Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin “Lightning Rod Junior” Bache, who died at 29 while awaiting trial.
Jefferson, after defeating Adams in the nasty 1800 election, pardoned those prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Jefferson understood that defending the freedom of the press is more important than the ill-considered passions of the moment. When Trump and his supporters denounce the mainstream media as fake news, they are the ones who are acting as enemies of liberty.
Besides, it is hypocritical of Trump to claim the media is fake news when he quotes from fake news sources such as the National Enquirer. He even repeated the ludicrous claim that Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Just because you don’t like the news or don’t want to believe the news does not make it fake news. And when you claim the mainstream media is fake news, you sound just as ignorant and uneducated as our president does.
Take an important lesson from Jefferson. While he did attempt at one point to use the force of law to censor the press, that was not in line with the rest of his writings and actions. In the end, Jefferson usually defended the need for a free and unmolested press even as he was disgusted by what was being printed and thought the newspapers were filled with lies.
That is because Jefferson understood, and Donald Trump and his supporters need to learn, that self-government demands the freedom of the press and without it, there is no government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
As Jefferson wrote to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, on Nov. 4, 1823, long after Jefferson left public life and shortly before his death: “[T]he only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.”
Thomas J. Lucente Jr. is an attorney with the Hearn Law Office in Wapakoneta (419-738-8171) and night editor of The Lima News. Reach him by telephone at 567-242-0398, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @ThomasLucente.