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Michael A. Cohen

The pursuit of truth is fundamental to journalists’ work

A central pillar of President Trump’s politics is a sustained assault on the free press.
A central pillar of President Trump’s politics is a sustained assault on the free press.

Today, in communities across America, and after a call to arms by the Boston Globe, newspapers are speaking with a collective voice to push back on President Donald Trump’s “relentless assault on the free press” in America.

It is both an uplifting moment — in demonstrating the vitality and importance of a free press — but also a sobering one, in that such a call to journalistic solidarity is necessary.

But when you have a president who regularly derides the media as “Fake News” or the “enemy of the people,” it’s essential that a stand be taken. If not the free press, then who?

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However, we should be clear that while outwardly Trump is waging war against the media, his real target is the truth.

As the Globe’s editorial said this morning, “It is an essential endpoint to Trump’s deluge of dishonesty that he now contests objective reality and urges his supporters to do the same. In the first 558 days of his presidency, Trump made 4,229 false or misleading claims, according to a list compiled by The Washington Post. Yet among Trump supporters, only 17 percent think that the administration regularly makes false claims. ‘Alternative facts’ have become de facto.”

For Trump, and for broad swaths of the Republican Party, the ultimate goal of their assault on journalism is to make truth and facts another area of partisan warfare. We’ve seen this from the moment Trump became president. Only hours after his inauguration, the president sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to falsely tell reporters that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest in US history. This was provably untrue, but it began a pattern of behavior that has been the Trump’s administration most consistent and defining characteristic — an allergy to truth.

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As we’ve seen over and over again, the White House, particularly the president, define reality not by how it is, but rather how they want it to be.

And while Trump is, by far, Washington’s worst offender, he has plenty of help. Last year, as Republicans tried to ram through repeal and replacement of Obamacare, they flagrantly and repeatedly lied about the ultimate impact of the legislation they were proposing. When congressional Republicans pushed a trillion-dollar tax cut through Congress, they did so with a bevy of misstatements, exaggerations, and straight-up lies. In Washington, truth has become something that Republicans would like you to believe is all in the eye of the beholder.

To be sure, lying in Washington is not restricted to a single party. Indeed, fifty years ago, a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was felled by his incessant dishonesty about the war in Vietnam — a steady stream of dishonesty enabled by administration officials, members of Congress, and military leaders. Then, as is the case now, journalists worked to ferret out the truth from an administration that preferred to define objective reality in its own self-interested terms.

This doesn’t mean that a free press gets everything right or is immune from mistakes. We have our own cross to bear when it comes to rise of Trump and his ascendancy to political power. Indeed, all of us in the world of journalism need to do more self-examination and challenge our own biases and assumptions. But even if we make errors, our underlying mission remains unchanged.

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As the Denver Post put it in its editorial today, “Journalists in The Denver Post newsroom spend their days in pursuit of the truth. There’s no political filter or agenda belying their printed words, just a desire to inform the public.”

“We are members of a proud, free and independent press, and each one of us feels a call to duty to confront and carry the truth in every word and every image of every day,” writes the Lewiston Sun Journal.

“Newspapers have been called enemies of the people before, mostly by some of the people afraid of what the people would do if they knew the truth,” says the Connersville News Examiner.

To some, this will sound trite or a bit of puffery. But there’s a reason why editorial boards, in very different parts of America, have such a similar message for their readers: because the pursuit of truth — no matter how messy or ugly it might be — is fundamental to what we do. President Trump can deride, threaten, slander, and seek to delegitimize us, but he won’t stop us from doing our job.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.