It’s too bad that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is not deemed as important as the Second, at least to the present occupant of the White House.
And his party.
Last week, President Donald Trump flew to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to lead a campaign rally of his followers. “I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington swamp … with much, much better people,” he told the crowd in the state capital’s Farm Show Complex and Expo Center.
In Trump World, the less desirable people left behind were 2,700 well-dressed denizens of that swamp, otherwise known as the White House Correspondents Association, as they gathered in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. Trump is the first president to miss this annual event since 1981 when Ronald Reagan, who was recovering after an assassination attempt, nevertheless called in to extend greetings to the assembled.
Trump only had to travel 1.5 miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW to the hotel, but chose to create an event where he could, yet again, bash the media. Instead, he went to Harrisburg. And to add insult to First Amendment injury, the day before, he appeared in Atlanta and addressed the annual convention of the National Rifle Association, an organization which robustly uses the First Amendment to promote the Second.
Where Richard Nixon once said that “the press is your enemy,” Trump is following in his footsteps. In slightly more than 100 days, Trump has unleashed a torrent of vitriol against those who work with words. Whether it’s the “failing” New York Times, “dishonest” reporters, or “fake news” in general, we are enduring a continuous episode of the surreal Reality Show hosted by that veteran showman, veteran self-promoter, veteran Atlantic City Boardwalk pitchman, but, most importantly, political rookie Donald Trump. Yes, Trump the rookie, the supreme narcissist who skipped the minor leagues by not running for sheriff, mayor, or Congress but thinks he can be successful in the majors by starting at the very top.
When you examine his often volatile reaction to critical news coverage, the rookie element and glaring inexperience is telling.
Trump, who must be a frequent patient of dermatologists due to his incredibly thin skin, has spent a lifetime threatening others with lawsuits. Now, his Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, dropped a not so subtle warning that the administration is examining current libel law to allow the president to sue publications for stories he does not like. According to Talking Points Memo:
Indeed, the President often said during the Presidential campaign, and since, that he wished to change libel laws so that he would be able to sue for “purposefully negative, and horrible and false articles” and “hit pieces.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that libel damages can be awarded to public officials only as a result of “actual malice.” Unintentional factual inaccuracies are protected by the First Amendment, as is speech critical of the President.
As observers of this slow-motion train wreck of an administration, we see its attempts to pivot on major stories and scandals that are damaging and show the incompetence, conflicts-of-interest, and perhaps most damaging of all, its compromised nature due to Russian involvement in the election campaign. There is no hope for change, as behavior modification therapy will not work for Trump and his ghastly crew. The only question at this point might be if the train stops completely through resignation or impeachment.
As part of the cleanup of the mess created by Trump and his attacks on the First Amendment, it should be an expectation that future presidents, regardless of party, will tone down the homage extended to the NRA and instead honor the threshold importance of the First Amendment by appearing at the meetings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, News Media Alliance, or even the Society of Professional Journalists . The damage caused by Trump and the shrill atmosphere created by the attacks on free speech and constitutional guarantees should demand no less.
We should hope.
In what seems another time – and certainly a very different country, President John F. Kennedy felt it necessary to address the American Newspaper Publishers Association, now called the News Media Alliance, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on April 27, 1961. The president spoke a little more than a week after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, as some in the Kennedy Administration felt that clues about the impending invasion were published in some major papers, possibly giving the Castro regime advance notice of the military action.
At the very beginning of his address, President Kennedy provided some ambiguity as to what was the purpose of his speech:
I have selected as the title of my remarks tonight “The President and the Press.” Some may suggest that this would be more naturally worded “The President Versus the Press. But those are not my sentiments…
The words that follow are provided here as a model for what a future, sane, and thoughtful president might say to the country as a way to provide a denouement on the damage caused by the Trump Administration in its challenge of the very role and purpose of an independent press and media.
President Kennedy continued:
No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding, and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.
In perhaps the most eerie part of this long-ago speech, Kennedy might have looked into the future, offering a clear rationale for the very idea of a Fourth Estate, and by doing so providing the country with an antidote to act against the emergence of an authoritarian, Trump-like figure.
Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.
In our present time, it is the American public that is angry about the course of the country and the shrill tone of the president. The media only mirrors that anger and skepticism, yet Trump has labeled it the enemy.
He is wrong. Anyone who would attempt to intimidate the media or threaten to craft more restrictive libel laws as a way to undercut the First Amendment is the enemy of any citizen, irrespective of political persuasion.
It was Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “an informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Likewise, it is also accurate to assert that in its watchdog and surveillance function, our nation’s media is performing quite well in informing and thus arming the citizenry against possible tyranny by a potentially authoritarian government.
Once upon a time, we had a thoughtful, articulate, dynamic president who spoke in complete sentences and who helped to define the role of a free press in the twentieth century. What he reminded us about was that there was only one type of business in this country that is afforded constitutional protection, yet it falls upon us in the twenty-first century to protect that business from presidential threats and intimidation, and, if necessary, peacefully assemble to prevent a coercive, powerful government from sustaining such threats.
Let us inform our political leaders in the executive and legislative branches that we can peacefully assemble without threat of arms, and that the pen in the form of a constitutionally protected media is mightier than the sword posed by the NRA and Second Amendment devotees.
We must therefore inform the uninformed President Trump that the First Amendment precedes the Second and is thus the most important guarantor of a free society. No other countervailing force, not Trump or the NRA, can change that.
For the future of this society, it cannot be any other way.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.