Imagine if President Trump publicly denounced men and women of the clergy as “disturbed” people who don’t love God. The outcry would be deafening; I’m confident that faith leaders throughout the country would pray even harder.
Or consider if the president denounced law-abiding gun-owners as “pathetic” and questioned their loyalty to their communities. Outrage would ignite, and gun owners would exercise their Second Amendment rights with vigor, buying more guns.
Of course, both scenarios are unthinkable; Trump’s base includes many religious leaders and gun owners. But beyond that, a president can’t be cavalier about how Americans exercise their constitutional rights. Then-candidate Barack Obama learned that firsthand in 2008 after his dismissive comments about voters who “cling to guns and religion.”
Yet Trump’s denouncement last week of the news media as “sick people” who don’t even like their country rolled off his tongue. And just as faith leaders and gun owners fight back if their rights are threatened, journalists have done the same with remarkably aggressive coverage of the president throughout his term so far.
That’s not a surprise. Good journalists are trained to pursue conflicts of interest, misleading statements and abuses of the public trust. When a president pledges transparency and conceals the names of those who visit the White House, promises to drain the swamp and yet recruits heavily from Wall Street and the lobbyist community, regularly engages in embellishment or worse, and then campaigns against an entire profession, it’s game on.
But therein lies a problem. As much as the president deserves scrutiny, the enormous volume of Trump coverage tends to convince his followers that his tirade against the press is justified. There are times when the news media seem determined to turn every 140-character tweet into a 2,000-character story.
Still, that’s about quantity, not quality. And much of the criticism directed toward Trump has less to do with news coverage than his own unfiltered 100-proof tweets.
I’m particularly puzzled by the president’s assertion that journalists don’t even like America. Say what?
I’ve spent about 25 years in newsrooms, including a number of years as the editor of USA TODAY, and I can say with confidence that journalists — like their friends and neighbors — genuinely like America. But what’s more important is what they love: America’s ideals.
They know that this country guarantees freedom of the press in a way unrivaled by any other nation. It allows them to report on, question and challenge the most powerful man in the world — and yet stay unharmed and out of prison. They embrace a nation where freedom to speak, write and pray are paramount, and where every voice can have an impact. They’re not shopping around for other countries.
President Trump, like others chanting “love it or leave it” over the years, seems to conflate love of country with love of government. You can be a patriot and not admire or embrace the ideas of government leaders. That shouldn’t be a foreign concept to Republicans or Democrats.
The president and his staff have every right to call out specific news organizations for specific coverage. But his wholesale condemnation of journalists is dangerous and reckless, undercutting respect for a core freedom of the First Amendment.
It also unfairly targets the tens of thousands of journalists nationwide who work hard every day to make a difference in their communities, regardless of the occupant of the White House. They’re the kind of journalists who are wading waist-deep into the waters of the Houston flood this week, reporting on, and in some cases rescuing, those in need. That’s what good Americans do.
The irony is that public officials and journalists share a common duty to the public. When presidents or reporters do their jobs ethically, with integrity and in service to the public, theirs is truly a noble calling.
We need more of that all around.
Ken Paulson is dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University and the president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. Follow him on Twitter: @kenpaulson1