You may have read that, this week, scores of U.S. newspapers are responding in independently written editorials to President Donald Trump’s attacks on journalists as enemies — his word — of the American people.
As this became a national news story, we at the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board had two choices: We could stay silent and leave you wondering what message to read into that, or we could explain in our own words the dangers the president’s incitement has created.
We chose No. 2, even though we generally avoid group editorial efforts.
We haven’t written at length about Trump’s vilification of journalists. Journalism isn’t supposed to be about journalists.
But Trump made us part of news stories so often that we’ll talk with you about that.
Nineteen months ago, Donald Trump swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution.
One protection in its First Amendment is the stated guarantee of a press free from government dictates, and an implied responsibility for journalists to be a check on that government’s enormous powers.
Rather than defending or at least respecting that guarantee and responsibility, Trump has escalated from criticism to incitement: At public appearances he demonizes the reporters who cover his speeches and his crowds.
He routinely insists journalists intentionally craft false reports.
As he said in a July speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. Just remember — what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
America’s news media — the reporting that journalists promulgate and the decisions they make — aren’t beyond fallibility or reproach; every day journalists get things right and other things wrong.
Tension between presidents and reporters is a staple of most administrations: Journalists rightly objected when President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, determined to halt leaks, spied on reporters and repeatedly invoked the Espionage Act against sources.
But Trump’s rants pose a different, more dangerous threat.
He is toying with the power of the presidency in order to provoke one part of the American public against another.
At some point such verbal assault encourages ideological extremists to take action.
It threatens journalists’ personal safety.
And it undercuts that responsibility for a press that’s supposedly free of government control to act as a watchdog on public officials.
Presidents play an outsize role in American life as elected leaders but also as caretakers of liberty.
What a president says, how a president shows respect or disrespect, sends signals across the country and around the world. When Trump portrays journalists as saboteurs of truth, he’s not taking on critics or sparring with adversaries.
He’s using the force of his office to embolden people who object to robust news coverage.
The Tribune Editorial Board faulted Trump as a candidate, then as a president, for his boorish behavior and divisive language.
His attacks on journalists exemplify his tendency to bully and humiliate.
There’s a direct line between his reluctance to shame white supremacists, his insertion of himself into other people’s disputes and his relentless attacks on the press: His primary concern is his own popularity, his control of the moment.
In our criticism we’ve distinguished between Trump’s tongue and Trump’s work — between this president and his presidency.
We’re more interested in judging his actions on major issues than in dissecting loopy tweets: We’ve criticized Trump on his immigration bungling, his tariffs that imperil Midwest jobs and his assault on special counsel Robert Mueller.
We’ve also credited Trump on his pro-growth tax policies, his nomination of qualified Supreme Court justices and his engagement with a menacing North Korea.
Along the way, we’ve ignored many outlandish things he’s said because they have little bearing on the country and are soon forgotten.
Don’t like what Trump brays? Wait a few minutes and you might hear something else you don’t like.
In sum: We aren’t the reflexive resistance Trump evidently imagines when he hears the word “journalists.”
We aren’t enemies of the American people.
But many of us have fielded enough angry threats — in the streets, on our phones and at our computers — to chafe when a president calls us that.
That’s why we’re adding our voices to those of other journalists nationwide.
Our role is to serve as a check on government. The president ought to get used to it.