Dear President Trump,
As journalists and founders of a network of media professionals in over 180 countries, we are seriously concerned with your attacks on the news media and your disregard for the truth itself. Your attempt to discredit legitimate media organizations, as well as the barring of media companies from your press conferences last week, are an insult to our esteemed colleagues who risk their lives every day to report the truth, and to the United States Constitution you took an oath to defend.
Attacking the news media with a broad brush and attempting to delegitimize media outlets critical of the government is exactly how Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin began their presidencies. It was the first step they took in weakening democracy in Venezuela and Russia. By driving a wedge between the people and the media, and by using the power of the presidency to intimidate journalists, these leaders built corrupt, authoritarian regimes with few checks on their power and limited recourse against human rights violations.
Can you imagine if journalists didn’t cover the Syrian War, the Iraq War, the Aids Pandemic, President Nixon, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Holocaust? What would the history books say? Where would we be as a society? We would all be living in the dark.
Thanks to our Constitution, our deep cultural tradition of press freedom, and the surging desire of the American people to access quality journalism, those tactics will not work in the United States.
In 1791, the founders of the United States had the foresight to define press freedom as a right rather than a privilege. This fundamental tenet of democracy has been deeply engrained in our culture ever since. Americans, whether immigrants or native born, understand that the news media is not “an enemy of the people,” as you say, but rather an advocate for the people. Since your election, Americans have been searching for more credible news sources to provide clarity in this increasingly chaotic media environment. The New York Times, for example, which you’ve described as “failing,” has seen subscriptions skyrocket since your election as president.
Your labeling of legitimate media institutions, like New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS, as “fake news,” is a baseless and false accusation. Fake news, according to Wikipedia, is the deliberate publishing of hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation purporting to be real news. There is no evidence that these legitimate media companies intentionally publish falsehood.
While every journalist makes mistakes from time to time, these organizations have processes in place to correct errors in their stories, no matter how small, because they know that their credibility is the only way viewers will keep reading or watching. They each have a long track record of quickly and transparently correcting errors.
When was the last time Lifezette or the Conservative Tribune, two fake news sites linked to your own inner circle, corrected an error ?
For you to place media institutions with long standing reputations for quality journalism in the same bucket with the thousands of fly-by-night fake news companies that emerged during this election season, is irresponsible. Real news companies strive to tell the truth and scrutinize government regardless of who’s in power. Fake news companies peddle propaganda, disguised as social media clickbait, for a profit. Your labeling of these outlets as “fake” simply because they are critical of you and your administration, while ignoring the very real scourge of fake journalism, has only made you less credible.
Your own on-the-record statements as a candidate and now as President of the United States has further undermined your credibility. According to the non-partisan, fact-checking website, Politifact, you’ve made at least 258 false, public statements since 2011 starting with the repeated claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the US, a racially-charged hoax purporting to delegitimize the first black president. Even after taking the oath as president, you have misled the public on a wide range of topics, from your false claim that the media is no longer reporting on terrorism to the lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the election. Politifact gave those statements, and 61 more of your public comments, a “pants on fire” rating, reserved only for the most egregious falsehoods.
As the President of the United States, your new title alone gives you the opportunity to actually become the most powerful and prolific propagator and distributor of fake news on the planet. This is because your every word, tweet or retweet is actual news, covered by every news organization and heard by your millions of social media followers. Disseminating falsehoods, so widely and unapologetically, dangerously misleads the public and hinders our ability to debate the important, real issues like the economy, healthcare, education, income inequality, climate change and foreign policy.
It also gives us little moral authority to fight for democratic ideals abroad. How can we promote a free press in another country after you’ve called the media the “enemy of the people” in your own country?
While you’re in Washington D.C., we implore you to visit the Journalists Memorial, dedicated to the brave journalists, reporters, documentary filmmakers, videographers, and photographers who have been killed in the line of duty.
Please read about CBS soundman James Brolan, who was killed on Memorial Day in a car bomb while embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq, or the story of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for war reporting, before dying tragically after a reporting trip to Syria, or about the 2,289 other stories of brave journalists who died while protecting democracies and the interests of people worldwide.
Your assault on the truth, and on the media companies who help us understand it, undermines the United States Constitution and dishonors journalists around the world who have sacrificed their lives to make us all more informed.
Members of the 4th Estate
Co-Founders of Storyhunter