Gone are the days when a newspaper’s only worry was publishing “all the news that’s fit to print.” The Washington Post adopted a new slogan in 2017: “Democracy dies in darkness.”
At the start of the third year of his presidency, Donald Trump is still at war with the nation’s press. He has demonized it as “the enemy of the people” and rejects reporting he doesn’t like as “fake news.” Trump held only four official press conferences during his first 18 months in office. He has publicly questioned the intelligence of reporters who ask questions he dislikes. Following a press conference in November, the White House revoked the press credentials of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta after a testy exchange with the president. (Acosta’s credentials were later restored in response to a lawsuit from CNN.)
Trump has also threatened to sue publishers Macmillan and Simon & Schuster over publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s Unhinged, respectively. But Trump is losing his war.
Supporters of free speech have fought back since the earliest days of the Trump administration. In March 2017, the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 56 national nonprofits, and the American Society of News Editors issued a statement on behalf of 75 national organizations that declared that Trump’s attacks on the press “betray the country’s most cherished values and undercut one of its most important strengths.”
Later in the year, 300 newspapers simultaneously published editorials rejecting Trump’s characterization of the press as an enemy. The U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution upholding the importance of freedom of the press.
Macmillan and Simon & Schuster defied Trump’s threats to sue them. “We cannot stand silent,” said John Sargent, Macmillan CEO, in his response to the White House’s threat. “We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future. And as citizens we must demand that President Trump understand and abide by the First Amendment of our Constitution.”
We have won a couple of battles in this war. Trump’s team made no effort to block the publication of Bob Woodward’s Fear. And though administration officials promised to fight a judge’s order to readmit Acosta, they quickly complied.
As the new year begins, there are signs that a majority of Americans continue to have faith in our founding principles, including the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. Many community-based initiatives have emerged to encourage Americans to reject efforts to portray people with opposing views as enemies, instead seeking common ground in our shared concern for the future of democracy.
The NCAC is joining this movement. As an organization that defends freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression, we believe that political polarization is having a chilling effect on free speech, making it increasingly difficult for people to have meaningful conversations about issues that are critical to the nation’s future.
This month, NCAC launched the Open Discussion Project. Cosponsored by the American Booksellers Association and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, the Open Discussion Project will bring people with conflicting views into conversation at independent bookstores. The goal is for participants to gain a greater understanding of those with opposing views. Hopefully, all involved will find areas of agreement. Professional mediators from the local communities are volunteering their time to facilitate the discussions.
We are building on the success of a reading group started at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., in spring 2017. The Bridging the Gap group alternated reading conservative and liberal titles covering a wide range of controversial issues. Five stores will join Quail Ridge in the pilot phase of the Open Discussion Project.
We can expect Trump’s war on the press to continue. But support for free speech and a free press is strong and growing.
Chris Finan is the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.