Democratic View: A free press

In this age of “fake news” brought to you by Breitbart, InfoWars and even the president himself, a free and unfettered press is more important than ever. The very existence of a free press has long been a tenet of our democracy, making President Trump’s assault on it deeply troubling.

At a time when a presidential administration like no other bears watching, President Trump and his allies are trying to muzzle and suppress news stories running counter to their agenda.

The stories that expose potential conflicts of interest are quickly dismissed as part of a media conspiracy designed to portray the president and his administration in a bad light. Add to that the new White House decision to open news conferences only to organizations that demonstrate fealty to President Trump, and you have an administration seeking to avoid accountability.

To be sure, President Obama’s administration was wary of the media as it tried to seal leaks as tightly as President Trump. But the Obama administration also understood that disagreeing with the media was not the same as attempting to shut them down or out. In so doing, the previous administration demonstrated an understanding that a free press opened a window into government while allowing, and even encouraging, an informed, robust debate of issues and policies.

By shutting out members of the media, the Trump White House is engaging in a form of blackmail, sending the message that if a news source investigates or reports on issues outside the administration’s “comfort zone,” access to administration officials will be denied. This action is unsettling and suggests an attempt to create “state directed” news and, as such, is a direct attack on our democracy.

The ability to make decisions based on facts is increasingly important in the Internet era where the only gatekeeper between real and fake news is a click of the mouse. With the rise of Internet sites catering to individual viewpoints, be they liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, a free press guarantees all sides of a story are being told. That stands in contrast to President Trump’s ill-advised attempts to control the message, using Twitter as a means for making policy proposals that have global implications and are delivered in the early morning hours.

The opportunity to present news fairly, already made difficult in a media industry that is struggling financially, needs to be encouraged rather than placed under the restraints that the Trump administration is seeking. A frank discussion of government policy spurred by thoroughly reported news can only benefit the public. An open news media is a distinct feature of American-style democracy and every bit as important as free speech and other constitutional guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment. The right to a free press is one of the fundamental underpinnings of democracy and one that must be preserved.

The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.