Editorial: The continuing need to defend our free press

A year ago today, more than 200 newspapers across the U.S. ran editorials decrying President Donald Trump's repeated application of the term "enemies of the people" to describe the press and reinforcing the need for a vibrant free press in a healthy democracy. There is still cause for concern.

Since that show of solidarity, the U.S. has fallen three places in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index ranking. We're now 48th out of 180 countries surveyed. Data compiled by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker points to an escalation in violence: By April, there had been 10 reported attacks on journalists this year alone and 46 since 2017, including a reporter in California who was struck in the face and had her phone stolen as she interviewed voters.

It's not just the U.S. In some places, threats against journalists are now "occupational hazards" - in Brazil, supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro have attacked members of the media both online and physically.

And President Trump continues to attack the media, revisiting the "enemy of the people" slogan in June when he accused The New York Times of a "virtual act of treason." Such attacks, whether from the president or any person in power, must be resisted.

The press is not perfect, to be sure. But to vilify the entire institution because of its imperfections poses a very real danger to America's freedom.

In one of our first editorials on the topic in December 2016, we weren't necessarily thinking of physical harm when we warned that the assault on the press is dangerous. We wrote:

"It undermines our democracy.

"It allows those in power to say, 'Ignore the facts no matter what the facts may be.'

"It allows partisans of both parties to say, 'Believe in my distortions because you agree with my ideology.' Or, 'because you agree with my cult personality.'

"It allows anyone who screws up to say, 'The problem's not me; the problem's the messenger.' "

The "enemy of the people" refrain can provide a useful political rhetorical slogan. But repeating such a slogan, a practice common among history's strongmen, and infusing it with a tone of legitimacy is not a harmless political device.

Writer Richard Frankel described the impact in a June 9 article for Salon:

"After all," he wrote, "enemies are not debated. Enemies are not reasoned with. One doesn't compromise with an enemy. An enemy is confronted, is combated, is neutralized, and ultimately, an enemy is destroyed. The point at which politics shifts from truth to lies, from opponents to enemies, is the point at which democracy dies."

That distinction, that warning, is as important to remember today as it was a year ago.

Facts matter. Support a Free Press.

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