“(The people) have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right, to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
— John Adams, 1765
President Donald Trump last week called many media outlets “the enemy of the American people.” His press secretary, when given the chance to retract, deny, or at least clarify that statement, refused to do so, instead listing off times that she herself has felt mistreated by journalists.
Presidents come and go. So do press secretaries. Ideas stick around longer. The idea of a free press, for example, as essential to America — protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution — predates this President by nearly 230 years.
So when the idea that the press is the “enemy” of America starts to float, we ought to be concerned. After all, you can name two other famous leaders in the last century who defined their critics as “enemies of the people”: Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.
We don’t want to go down those roads, do we?
Now, anytime someone IN the media starts talking ABOUT the media, critics scream bias. “What do you expect?” they say. “He works in the business.” They never say that the reason he — or she — may work in the business is precisely for the reasons he or she is defending.
But rather than go down that rabbit hole, let us simply look at a world without a free press. This is a fantasy for our current president — and, more and more, some of his ardent supporters.
OK. Let’s pretend it happened. If journalists are truly “the enemy” of the people, then here is what the last 100 years or so might look like without them.
Corruption wins with no press
Standard Oil would never have been exposed as a monopoly, nor broken up by the Supreme Court in violation of antitrust laws. Working conditions on meatpacking docks might never have been made humane. Mental asylums could have mistreated patients for decades. What you know about World War II would be a shell of what you know now.
Senator Joseph McCarthy and his phony Communist witch hunt might have run rampant. Vietnam would be all rosy stories from the government. The My Lai massacre would never have been exposed. Same for Agent Orange.
Richard Nixon would have finished his term as president. Watergate would be nothing more than a hotel. The Pentagon Papers, revealing the covert origins and practices in a war that killed nearly 60,000 of our soldiers, and millions of Vietnamese, might never have been revealed.
Racial discrimination in housing could have gone on unchecked. Safety violations in cars and airplanes would be unreported. Water polluted by chemical plants would continue to be poisoned. You might never know what really happened at the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island.
President Bill Clinton would have not been impeached for his behavior with and about Monica Lewinsky. You wouldn’t know who Monica Lewinsky is.
Nearly all of what you learned after the World Trade Center bombings, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, would be a fraction of what you know now, and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would be your information sources.
College basketball and football programs would be unscathed. Improper payments could be regularly made as long as people kept quiet. Baseball players could be juicing on steroids. The NFL could laugh at concussion accusations.
Kwame Kilpatrick would have continued as mayor. Flint’s water could still be deadly. Countless cases of political corruption would be unreported. Bribery could go on unpunished. School officials, police officers, city council members — in short, anyone in power — could pretty much do what they wanted as long as they maintained secrecy, because who else but journalists would expose it?
Press is flawed, but needed
The fact is virtually all of what we know outside of our own homes, neighborhoods and workplaces is brought to us by some form of journalism. What would we know of cancer and cigarettes, devious mortgage practices, or awful behavior by religious figures if there were no press to look into it?
And things outside this country? How much information about radical terrorist attacks or genocides in places like Rwanda or Darfur would you be aware of without journalists reporting on it? Anything?
Likely not. Yet in nearly all of the cases I just mentioned, there were parties in power who hated the fact that they were being reported on, who decried the people asking them questions, who wailed that they were being miscast, treated unfairly, not being believed.
None of that is new. So President Trump is not new. And Sarah Sanders is not new. But this idea that the press in the enemy of America, coming from the man we elected our leader — that’s new. And dangerous. And please don’t say it’s only the fake news that’s the enemy (as the President later tweeted). One person’s fake news is another person’s gospel.
If we stop looking at “the media” as the small group that covers the President’s press briefings, we’d recognize that the overwhelming amount of journalism practiced in this country is honorable and admirable and necessary.
Yes, the press is flawed. Yes, the press can be biased. Yes, the press sometimes gets it wrong. Yes, the press employs people who have their own agendas.
All of that is true.
But it is even more true of people in power. And as John Adams said, if those people are to rule us — in politics, in war, in business, in society — it is essential that we citizens always have “that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge,” the knowledge of their conduct and character.
If we banish the media as the enemy, who is going to provide it?
Oh, that’s right. The rulers themselves. Which is exactly how they want it.
You make the choice.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.