The news media, and the political opposition, have criticized President Donald Trump harshly for using the phrase “enemy of the people.”
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a proud member of the “Never Trump” Republican faction, accused Trump of imitating Stalin in using the phrase to attack the media. CNN’s Brian Stelter, the network’s editorial mouthpiece, accused Trump last month of “poisoning the American people” with the phrase, and later suggested it was encouraging violence.
That argument gained new momentum Thursday, when federal officials arrested a California man for allegedly making death threats to the Boston Globe. On Aug. 10, the Globe announced a nationwide effort to encourage newspapers to print editorials criticizing the Trump administration for allegedly attacking freedom of the press. The accused, Robert D. Chain, 68, allegedly called the paper 14 times from Aug. 10 to 22, and specifically referenced the phrase “enemy of the people.”
Awful. Unfortunately, as Breitbart News has noted, members of the press have also appeared to condone left-wing violence on several occasions. CNN’s Chris Cuomo has argued repeatedly that while violence by left- and right-wing groups might be legally equivalent, violence by those opposing racism (as Antifa claims to do) is morally superior.
Arguably, the President of the United States should avoid singling out the media, or anyone, as an “enemy of the people.”
Still, CNN and others have repeatedly misquoted Trump as if he were referring to the media as a whole as the “enemy of the people,” when he has referred specifically to what he calls “fake news” (though that may include “much of the Media”).
That sort of misreporting breeds mistrust reflected in Trump’s phrase. Trump is not the only president to have attacked critical media. President Barack Obama used a similar, albeit less catchy, attack on Fox News, calling it “destructive to [America’s] long-term growth.”
The irony is that in principle, everyone agrees with Trump: it is against the public interest to report misleading information.
That is how the left justifies its campaign to push Facebook, Google, and other tech giants to censor conservatives. That is how CNN justifies its crusade against Alex Jones and Inofwars, which it has sought to oust from every platform.
But CNN also promoted the false “hands up, don’t shoot” claim of the Black Lives Matter movement, later marred by deadly violence.
The problem is that we disagree, as a nation, about what is in the public interest. On some — not all — issues, we also disagree about what the facts are. (“Fact-checking” has become useless; people see it as a partisan exercise.)
These issues were tackled more than a century ago by the Henrik Ibsen in An Enemy of the People, a play that has drawn renewed interest in the U.S. thanks to President Trump’s use of that phrase.
The hero, Dr. Stockmann, tries to warn the town about pollution. He is convinced he will prevail because he has truth — and the media — on his side. Instead, he is cast as an “enemy of the people.” The audience empathizes with him — until he goes too far:
The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don’t imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!–you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones!
Our media are not the enemy of the people when they present facts. However, they become the opposition — if not quite the “enemy” — when they go too far and insist their grasp of the facts entitles them to rule.
Their role is to inform democracy, not to usurp it.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.