President Donald Trump’s feud with the media reached new heights Feb. 17 when Trump tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American people.” The tweet was liked 151,000 times, and retweeted 48,000 times.
On one hand, the enthusiasm behind the president’s tweet is understandable. A conservative base is finally hearing a president challenge the bias that for too long has been dominant in the mainstream press. Many Catholics long have been frustrated with how members of the secular, mainstream media misconstrue Church teaching and often even fail to recognize that there is another side to an argument. It’s necessary, therefore, that the secular media, driven by a desire for stronger ratings and wider profit margins, and facing mounting competition, be challenged to represent all issues fairly and accurately. But, as many leaders on both sides of the aisle pointed out in the days following this tweet, it is one thing to take umbrage with a particular news story or the bias of a news organization, and quite another to state that the media, as an institution, is the enemy of the people.
According to an annual report on media independence around the world produced by the nonpartisan group Freedom House in 2016, only 13 percent of the world’s population live in an environment that enjoys a free press — that is “where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.” In contrast, 46 percent live in media environments deemed “not free,” including North Korea, Cuba, China, Venezuela, Russia and the majority of the Middle East and Africa. There, members of the media who do not support the state may be suppressed or jailed on a good day, and beaten or killed on a bad one. The other 41 percent live in territory considered “partly free.” The lack of a free press leads to the creation of an environment that represses facts, restricts the free exchange of ideas and opinions, is subject to governmental or organizational overreach, and is vulnerable to corruption and totalitarian control.
Two examples are relevant. First, because of our constitutional right to a free press, when anti-Catholic forces were attacking the Church, Father John F. Noll, founder of Our Sunday Visitor, was able to start his own newspaper to counter with the truth about the Faith in 1912. Through the press, OSV was able to defend the truth of the Church against aggressors. Second, it was intrepid reporting by journalists at the Boston Globe that exposed the extent of the clergy sex abuse crisis in 2002. Though this exposure has been difficult, few would deny that the Church is indebted to the media for shining a light on the sin and crime hiding within the institution.
While the media is charged with spreading the truth, however, it is important to acknowledge that we live in a society that is allowing the principles of truth to change, with long-standing paradigms of human sexuality, identity, marriage and family life frequently shouted down — one symptom among many of the “dictatorship of relativism” warned of by Pope Benedict XVI. Too often, the media let their pursuit of facts be waylaid by this shifting sense of truth.
These are serious problems that need to be addressed as a society. But attacking the press as an institution is not the answer. When such disparagement or, worse, vilification becomes commonplace, we find ourselves, and our democracy, in dangerous territory.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor