President Donald Trump and his administration didn’t invent attacks on the free press, but they have taken them to incredible and dangerous new levels.
This week, newspapers across the country are answering a call from the Boston Globe for a coordinated response to end the “slander of ‘fake news’” and the ongoing “incitement against the First Amendment, labeling journalists the ‘enemy of the American people’ and ‘dangerous and sick.’”
“The dirty war on the free press must end,” the Globe wrote to editorial boards. “Publications, whatever their politics, could make a powerful statement by standing together in the common defense of their profession and the vital role it plays in government for and by the people.”
More than 200 publications, including the BDN, have joined the effort, and the list is still growing.
I haven’t been a journalist for many years, and I’m not a member of the Bangor Daily News’ editorial board, but I’m proud to echo the Globe’s words: “A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution.”
Maine has been on the unfortunate frontlines of this fight and has seen firsthand what can happen when men in powerful positions attack the media and ignore the laws that are intended to keep the public informed about the operations of government.
Gov. Paul LePage, who likes to say he was Trump before Trump, grabs headlines for his racist and violent tirades, for his regressive policies and his commitment to flouting laws he doesn’t like.
But he was also an early adopter of blaming the media for his own self-inflicted problems and for inciting violence against the press.
He’s “joked” about blowing up the Portland Press Herald, threatened to punch a reporter for Maine Public and told a group of teen-agers that he’d like to shoot Bangor Daily News editorial cartoonist George Danby. Danby’s son was in the audience for the “joke,” which wasn’t – and isn’t – funny.
But LePage’s assaults on the media and the First Amendment go deeper that his rhetoric. He no longer makes his schedule public. He and his administration routinely violate the state’s Freedom of Access Act by not turning over public records. The act is meant to guarantee that the public can keep an eye on the workings of government.
Early in his administration, he likened FOAA to terrorism and called reporters “pencil terrorists.”
He boasted that he lies to the press so he can attack them.
“I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they’ll write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid, it’s awful,” LePage said on WGAN last year.
He prohibits department heads and cabinet members from testifying before the Legislature or answering questions. Even lawmakers can’t get the administration to follow FOAA.
And, as the Associated Press reported this week, the LePage administration is keeping the details of a new psychiatric facility – which will be run by a private company – secret. The public has a right to now what’s going on.
Like Trump, LePage’s job approval numbers are underwater. Only about 40 percent of Maine voters give him good marks. But those voters are loyal, to a fault.
Republicans – with a few notable exceptions – have stuck with the governor regardless of what he has said or done, even when he has explicitly threatened violence, violated state law and launched personal attacks against individuals or members of the media.
For nearly eight years, Maine has shown what can happen when a leader lies with abandon, isn’t beholden to the facts and then attacks and undermines the media, which is responsible for holding politicians and the government accountable. Government frays. Important work goes undone.
The governor has gone largely unchecked and now his approach is being tested on the national level by the president.
Reporters will continue to do their jobs, regardless of the spears thrown in their direction by powerful people.
But they need some help. Republicans have shown that they aren’t up to the task of consistently defending the free press and the First Amendment. It’s up to voters.
If the president remains on his current path, it is only a matter of time before someone – someone who is already likely dangerous – turns Trump’s words into actions.
When the president calls someone the “enemy.” When he dehumanizes them, delegitimizes them. Says that they are a threat. Incites his followers. Nods toward violence. What do we think is going to happen?
So far, we’ve been lucky. But how long will that luck hold? This is no game. The inflammatory rhetoric of men like Trump and LePage must be resisted.
Reporters will report, but it’s up to the rest of us to put a stop to this brand of incitement before something truly horrible happens.