Why attacks on free speech and the free press are so dangerous

"Fake news." It's been repeated so frequently that it's become a tired joke. As time has passed, the rhetorical war on the press has heated up: President Donald Trump called the media "the enemy of the American people" as early in his presidency as February 2017, and since then, the attacks from our nation's president and some of his supporters have become increasingly strident, and the threats of economic or physical consequences more severe. Informed criticism of the media is normal, even healthy for our democracy. But branding the press as the enemy and threatening actions that would curtail First Amendment protections for free speech and the free press isn't just wrongheaded, it's dangerous.

The media in America isn't some homogeneous soup. It's made up of thousands of press entities, from national outlets such as cable news networks, big city newspapers, radio and TV stations, all the way down to small-town weekly papers and hyperlocal news sites at which the editor, reporter, sales manager, circulation director and publisher are all the same person. Although the industry has trended toward consolidation and chain ownership, many — including the Anchorage Daily News — are independently owned, based entirely within the communities they serve.

To be clear, some of the fault for perceptions of bias in the media lies with outlets that have blurred the lines between which content is news and which is opinion. In particular, cable news networks such as FOX News and MSNBC, which have aligned their commentary with ideological factions, have lent credence to the notion that the media is pushing an agenda rather than focusing on balanced reporting.

But the vast majority of U.S. journalists don't deserve to be tarred by accusations of bias. They go out every day and tell their communities' stories, making every effort to be fair and accurate in their coverage. When they make errors, it is the result of honest misunderstanding, not an insidious agenda.

The work of the press is essential. Without a free press to provide a check on our government, we would have little means to check the claims of politicians. Imagine trying to figure out what was going on in Juneau if it were legislators themselves in charge of the flow of information about the state government. Journalists are key to holding our public servants accountable.

Nationally, this means making Americans aware of the more than $1 million in chartered flights taken by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, or civilian deaths caused by drone strikes under President Barack Obama. Closer to home, it means keeping Anchorage residents aware of the spike in property crime, the outsize cost of the Legislature's local office space or the swelling price tag of the municipality's financial software. If the press is the enemy of anything, it is corruption and waste by those in positions of power in our society. And it's easy to see why the people in those positions would seek to undermine trust in the media.

In particular, it is dangerous for a U.S. president to label the press the enemy and to threaten to undermine protections for press freedom, because his statements carry great weight both at home and abroad. When a president declares he and his government are the only reliable source of information, the potential for his abuse of the people's trust should be clear to all.


Another major consequence of the attacks on the press has been the damage done to our sense of shared truth and reality. As political figures have declared any coverage with which they disagree to be inaccurate, conspiracy theories have spread about mass shooting victims being actors, or vast plots and shadow governments controlling events across the world. As politicians — and even the president — encourage their supporters to disregard the reporting of the media, they also foster an ecosystem in which people are free to disregard information that makes them uncomfortable or challenges their views. If we can't agree on basic facts, there is little hope for us to agree on anything else.

The First Amendment is first for a reason. Without it, maintaining the rights guaranteed by the others would be next to impossible. The ability to espouse contrary views and confront uncomfortable truths is the bedrock of American democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a member of the Continental Congress, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The Anchorage Daily News is proudly owned and operated by Alaskans. Our reporters live in neighborhoods across Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Our sales employees shop at the businesses they talk to about placing ads in the paper. Our paper carriers are on your street every morning. All of these people believe in the importance of news in our community, and none of them are your enemy.

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O'Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.