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Charlie Mitchell: Trump didn't invent 'public enemy' label for the media

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

 

OXFORD -- Media folk are rankled because the President of the United States identifies us as "enemies of the American people." 

 

In the words of Charlie Brown, "Good grief." 

 

Let's get over ourselves. 

 

While Donald Trump's descriptions are incessant at least they are inarticulate. "Very dishonest people" is the best Trump can do. Back in his day, Thomas Jefferson was vivid. "I deplore," Jefferson wrote 204 years ago, "the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write for them." 

 

Now, that's how to insult a profession. 

 

Jefferson continued that newspapers were "depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief." 

 

In the words of Sheldon Cooper, "Bazinga." 

 

Now, wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. 

 

This Thomas Jefferson. Wasn't he the author of the Declaration of Independence, the guy who pushed James Madison to include a Bill of Rights -- including a specific guarantee of freedom of the press -- in the Constitution? 

 

The answer is, of course, yes. 

 

So how is it that a person who had no respect for the media insisted it be unfettered? 

 

The answer reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. Freedom of the press was not enshrined to protect the press. It was ordained to protect the people. 

 

Jefferson knew communication was going to happen. He saw two options. (1) Have government stick its nose into what people can say and hear, to have a trump (sorry) card? Or (2) leave it to the people to can take it all in and sort it all out, deciding what to believe, where to place their trust? 

 

Neither option is perfect, or even close to perfect. 

 

Jefferson, however, was distinctly hopeful on this point: 

 

"The public judgment will correct false reasonings and opinions on a full hearing of all parties," Jefferson said when being inaugurated as president for a second term, "and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion." 

 

Other nations, before and since, have found America's approach foolish. Both benign dictatorships and tyrannies of fear have believed the notion that government should not manage what people see, hear and read has been (and is) seen as dangerous (especially to government). 

 

Are some sectors of the media out to get Trump? No doubt. His shallow inconsistency, abusive speech and lack of interest in objective truth are maddening. Are some media practitioners out to prop him up, to explain away his quirks? Yes, that, too. 

 

Is there dishonesty among media folks? Yes. There is no career field free of hacks and zealots and assorted weirdos. 

 

Two more things: 

 

First, the role of the media as a foil for politicians can't be discounted. From Jefferson's day until today people in or seeking power bash journalists to elevate themselves. Witness how often Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves claim they, like Trump, are victims of distortion and unfairness. They usually throw in "liberal," too. 

 

Second, and far more significant is this: Trusting the people to separate worthwhile information from worthless information works, or at least it has worked to date. 

 

All of traditional journalism and especially community journalism is under threat for multiple reasons, mostly competition for an audience due to this thing called the internet. It is assumed, perhaps correctly, that the thud in the driveway will sooner or later completely be replaced. That's fine. 

 

What must not be lost in the scurry for audience is the solid fact that quality and thorough local reporting makes communities better. Some of what the people are told will be wrong. Some (we hope most) will be right. Voters will sometimes get it right. Sometimes they won't. 

 

With a few star-struck exceptions, most media practitioners didn't enter the field to be popular or, importantly, to mislead. But long, long before Trump "journalist" always polled second-to-last as a respected profession. ("Politician" is consistently last.) 

 

It's not about the media, or respect for the media. It's about whether to have faith that people will usually choose the better path. 

 

Perhaps one freshly minted journalist put it best when she tweeted that she was off to a career of long hours and low pay. As a refrain, she added, "but at least people will hate me." 

 

Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]

 

 

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