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EDITORIAL: ‘Enemy of the people’ rhetoric damaging

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OUR OPINION: President Trump’s ongoing assault on the media is harmful to both journalism’s pursuit of truth and community-based information, and to democracy itself.

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The continued rhetoric from President Trump characterizing the news media as “the enemy of the people” is taking a toll. But it’s affecting more than just newspapers and television/cable news organizations.

The real — and far more dangerous — impact of the constant barrage of negative comments from the administration goes beyond the reporters and editors of print and electronic news organizations; it strikes at the heart of our democracy.

Let’s be clear; this is not about party affiliation. It is not about positions on national or foreign policy. It is not about economic priorities, tax cuts, health care or Supreme Court nominees. It’s not about tariffs or immigration. It’s not about whether you’re a conservative or a liberal.

Rather it’s about the basic underpinning of how we function as a free society. A free flow of information is at the heart of a democracy. When a person holding the highest elected position in the land constantly calls those who are providing this information “the enemy of the people,” American citizens are in trouble.

It gets worse. Last week, in a speech at the VFW annual convention in Kansas City, the president said, “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news ... What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

When the president is asking the American people to believe that what is being reported is not the truth, we are in serious trouble as a nation.

Are there errors in reporting? Absolutely. Like all professions, news organizations — whether they are in print, on air or online — sometimes get it wrong. The hyper-charged 24-7 media landscape and our collective need for instant gratification is a contributing factor. So is the competition inherent in the business models of major news organizations.

Is there bias in reporting? Look at MSNBC and Fox News — both well-known cable news organizations — and there are two obvious, distinct perspectives. You could call that bias, you could call it opinion or you could simply call it opposing points of view.

But to broadly label news media as “fake news” and to tell people that “what you’re reading is not what’s happening” is both irresponsible and dangerous.

Does this matter for the Freeman Courier

Of course.

Anytime the credibility of news media is brought into question — whether it’s a mistake we make, a mistake another newspaper makes or an attack from an elected official — it’s felt locally. 

But more importantly, it hurts you.

The pages of the Courier provide information ranging from city council meetings to school board meetings to community events to business developments. Every week there’s information about events coming up and events that happened, milestones in people’s lives and a look at our community’s history.

The pages of the Courier also include opinions. You can agree or disagree with the opinions and perspectives shared on the opinion pages and you can respond in writing, if you wish.

A community conversation, whether it’s about events happening in our community or it’s about a position voiced in an editorial, column or letter, is at the heart of how we live and work together.

Rhetoric diminishing that process — regardless of where is comes from —should concern every one of us, whether in Freeman, or Sioux Falls, or St. Louis or New York.

Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote, “in our terribly divided nation, we need the local newspaper to give us common information — an agreed-upon set of facts to argue about.”

Without that, she wrote, “public officials aren’t held accountable, town budgets go unscrutinized ... we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.”

It’s unlikely the president will change his ways. He remains focused on energizing his base by whatever means necessary. His approach is to divide rather than seek common ground. His style to blend the very grey area of public policy and personal agenda continues. 

We need elected officials at the highest levels of government to not only affirm and champion the ideals of the First Amendment. That includes the leadership of the president’s party. We also need all people of integrity to also stand up, confront and refute the dangerous and harmful rhetoric that seeks to demean and demonize the important work of news reporters at every level.

Our democracy depends on it.

The Courier editorial reflects the opinion of publisher Jeremy Waltner and former publisher Tim L. Waltner