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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Democracy's bulwark

| Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. speaks on the Senate floor last month at the Capitol in Washington. Flake called President Trump’s repeated attacks on the media “shameful” and “repulsive” and said Trump “has it precisely backward.’’ (Senate TV via AP)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. speaks on the Senate floor last month at the Capitol in Washington. Flake called President Trump’s repeated attacks on the media “shameful” and “repulsive” and said Trump “has it precisely backward.’’ (Senate TV via AP)

Joseph Stalin hated the press. The Soviet tyrant wanted absolute control of the news that was reported to the masses, so he created his own media and discredited those who reported anything else.

He called journalists “enemies of the people.”

It was an extreme and dangerous characterization, for journalists and freedom alike. But while many politicians see journalists as nuisances who derail their plans or find trouble where there is none, serious public servants have a love-hate relationship with the press.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson complained bitterly about the unfairness that John Jay met at the hands of the press. Jefferson said that in spite of Jay's selfless public service and honesty, he had to endure unjustified vicious attacks in the newspapers. But Jefferson saw no alternative to living with the excesses of the press. “It is however an evil for which there is no remedy. Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., believes Donald Trump has more in common with Stalin than he does with Jefferson when it comes to freedom of the press. And he cites Trump's use of Stalin's inflammatory phrase as evidence.

Last year, Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” And it has been a year of constant attacks on the media since.

“When you reflexively refer to the press as the ‘enemy of the people' or ‘fake news,' that has real damage. It has real damage to our standing in the world,” Flake said on ABC News' “This Week.”

“It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use … . And, of course, the president has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot's enemy,” Flake said in a Senate-floor speech.

And Flake's fellow Arizonan and Senate colleague John McCain agrees. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, McCain wrote, “Governments dub the press the ‘enemy of the people,' weaken or eliminate their independence, and exploit the lack of serious scrutiny to encroach on individual liberties and freedoms.”

“Ultimately, freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed,” McCain also wrote. “Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely. Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.”

After a year of Trump's relentless attacks on the media, there are some signs that the press is on the rebound. A recent survey by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies shows that only about 31 percent now believe that the media are not serving the public, which is down from 39 percent when Trump took office.

So here's something for Trump's list of accomplishments: Two prominent national politicians, who have had their own knock-down drag-out battles with the press, are now defending it, and the public is starting to trust journalists again. And those are things to be proud of.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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