In 1936, a developing nation adopted a new constitution. This constitution went beyond the United States Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press. In the United States, government may not interfere with the operation of a newspaper, but publishing is limited to those with the economic means to do it. This new constitution adopted in 1936 guaranteed not only freedom of the press, but that printing presses and stocks of paper would be provided for public use.
What was this country? It was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Did this result in a free press? Of course not. Soviet citizens got their news from sources approved by the government and by the Communist Party. The government published a newspaper called Izvestia, which means “The News”; the Communist Party published Pravda, which means “The Truth.” But the old joke went that there was little news in Izvestia and little truth in Pravda.
The difference between the American press and the Soviet press was dramatic. American press freedom isn’t perfect, but the First Amendment is actually enforced here. The counterpart in the Soviet Constitution of 1936, known as Article 125, was ignored. Why? Because Joseph Stalin didn’t want a free press holding him accountable.
George W. Bush did a good job summing up the importance of a free press in an on NBC’s “Today” show last year: “Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”
Imagine what would have happened if Mr. Bush had the power to prevent the public from getting news reports of the slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Or imagine if Barack Obama had been able to prevent the public from getting news reports about the gun-walking scandal in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the contempt of Congress charge against Attorney General Eric Holder for not releasing documents related to that scandal.
And who wants that power? Donald J. Trump. At a recent rally in Wilkes-Barre for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lou Barletta, Mr. Trump lashed out at what he called “fake, fake disgusting news” and described journalists as his true opponent.
“Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?” Mr. Trump asked rhetorically, pointing to journalists in the back of the hall. “They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”
In the classic propagandist’s move of accusing your adversary of what you are doing, Mr. Trump told a number of falsehoods himself at that rally. Fact-Check.org, a website once endorsed by Dick Cheney, documented a multitude of falsehoods at the Wilkes-Barre rally. Among them were claims about Mr. Barletta’s opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr., and his positions on border security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“Bob Casey is for open borders,” Mr. Trump said. “Bob Casey wants to fire the incredible men and women of ICE. He wants to abolish ICE, because he’s weak.”
Of course these claims are false. In 2013, Mr. Casey voted for an immigration overhaul bill that would have, among other things, doubled the number of border patrol agents along the Mexican border. And Mr. Casey said at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in July that he does not want to abolish ICE.
The danger of Mr. Trump’s temper tantrums, though, is what happens when his supporters get caught up in them. Back when he was still running for president, Mr. Trump once singled out NBC reporter Katy Tur by name, getting the crowd so hyped up with anger at her that the Secret Service escorted her to her car.
And Bret Stephens, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote that he has gotten three threats of violence, either express or implicit, from people who are clearly supporters of Mr. Trump’s. In a voice mail message he got in May, the caller said, “Do you think the pen is mightier than the sword, or that the AR is mightier than the pen? I don’t carry an AR but once we start shooting you (expletive) you aren’t going to pop off like you do now. You’re worthless, the press is the enemy of the United States people and, you know what, rather than me shoot you, I hope a Mexican and, even better yet, I hope a (racial slur) shoots you in the head, dead.” The caller then repeated the racial slur for blacks 10 times, ending with, “Have a nice day, (racial slur) lover.”
If these threats of violence escalate to a point where journalists are afraid to do their job of holding government accountable, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will be as meaningless as Article 125 of the Soviet Constitution of 1936.
The preceding editorial is the opinion of The Elizabethtown Advocate. Other opinions on this page are those of individual contributors. The Advocate aims to give its readers a wide variety of opinions.