Thomas Jefferson was one of the biggest proponents of the free press. When it came to holding government accountable, the author of the Declaration of Independence believed the ability to investigate government leaders was vital to liberty.
It’s a polar opposite approach to the current presumed GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Yes, voters have heard Trump call the press “scum,” “slime,” “disgusting,” “dishonest.” His venom on journalists is so common that it rarely makes news anymore.
But who cares, right? Why should this name-calling matter? Ignore a bully and he will go away. Actually, that’s not the way it works in government – both in theory and in practicality.
Journalism is the most influential watchdog of democracy. Regardless of whether you watch Fox News or MSNBC, read the Washington Post or the New York Post, the questions asked to the candidates reveal character, morals, values, principal, policy and rational thinking.
Without these questions, voters won’t know how a future elected official will react in a crisis situation. Past is also prose because it reveals how a candidate actually reacted when the cameras weren’t rolling and crises ensued.
Back in January, Trump proudly boasted to the TV cameras that he raised $6 million for veterans’ issues. It was a great distraction from the GOP debates after Trump decided to boycott Fox News for treating him unfairly. But most voters forgot about that veteran money as the next news cycle resumed.
However, several journalists probed deeper, asking which veteran organizations got those donations. The Trump campaign didn’t give details until the Washington Post ran a story last month on the missing money. Then, the Associated Press reported that roughly two-dozen veterans group suddenly got donations after the Washington Post story ran.
A free press is not only a tool of democracy but it is also the responsibility of the press to be critical and curious, or as Jefferson said, “The only security of all is in a free press…. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Trump doesn’t like scrutiny. He doesn’t want journalists to question his motives or challenge his intellect. Instead of answering the legitimate questions on where the money went, Trump held a press conference and, you guessed it, attacked the messenger.
“Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone’s saying, ‘Who got it, who got it, who got it?’” Trump said at a press conference last week. “And you make me look very bad. I have never received such bad publicity for doing such a good job.”
You know what Trump is telling voters with that statement? Trust me – something Jefferson would advise voters against.
“No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defense,” Jefferson said in 1823. Or in more modern terms, if you’re sincere and honest, you shouldn’t be on the defense.
Last week, Trump also came under fire from reporters over newly released documents that showed how the organization worked behind closed doors. In testimony, former managers with Trump University said it was a “fraudulent scheme” that “preyed upon the elderly and uneducated.”
So what was Trump’s response? He attacked the U.S. District Judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuits, calling him “very hostile,” a “hater” and “Mexican.” Now, Trump is getting heat from GOP leaders for implying a US District Judge of Mexican descent can’t be impartial based on his ethnicity.
We may not be able to watch a debate between Trump and Jefferson, but we can in theory read the transcripts.
“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” –Thomas Jefferson in 1786.
“I’m going to continue to attack the press. Look, I find the press to be extremely dishonest. I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest. I will say that.” — Donald Trump in May 2016.
I would pay money to see a debate between Trump and Jefferson. And if it ever happened, I would bet money that when the questions got tough, Trump would revert to attacking Jefferson for being the worst Secretary of State in our country’s history, regardless of whether he was the first.
Mark Macias is a former Executive Producer with NBC and Senior Producer with CBS in New York. He is also author of the book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media. He now runs media and crisis campaigns for politicians, financial organizations, nonprofits and tech companies.