What Trump Can Learn About “Witch Hunts” from the Pennsylvania Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

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Paul Elie, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, reminds us that sometimes “witch hunts” turn-up witches.

In 2002 , a Mexican cardinal said that the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was a “witch hunt.”  We now have a similar sex abuse scandal in Catholic Pennsylvania.  (I have not seen anyone call this a witch hunt yet, but I could be wrong).  Elie argues the press, the prosecution, and the people remain the best way to keep powerful priests and politicians accountable.

Maybe Trump should head down to the White House cinema and watch Spotlight.  He might learn something about the essential role the press must play in curbing executive power.

Here is a taste of his piece at Time:

“Witch hunts” is what prominent cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras called the Boston Globe’s and other outlets’ reporting on decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in 2002, after the coverage led to accusations of a cover-up. He is now one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers. But they were not witch hunts. They told the truth and exposed the perils of unchecked power exercised by another cardinal, Boston’s Bernard Law. That reporting led to Law’s resignation, the removal and prosecution of priestly offenders, and a promise from U.S. bishops to install a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse.

Sixteen years later, the phrase witch hunt calls to mind President Trump’s assault on the free press, the rule of law, and our constitutional system of checks and balances and the separation of powers. What happens when those curbs on executive power are weak or nonexistent? Too often we look to places like Vladimir Putin’s Russia to answer that question. Instead, we should look to the Catholic Church; we can see the consequences in the broken lives of thousands of victims and the anguish of our Catholic neighbors — because the crisis of priestly sexual abuse is a crisis of executive power run amok.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

When Lesley Stahl asked Donald Trump in an off-camera meeting to explain “his barrage of insults aimed at journalists.” Trump responded:

‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you…So, put that in your head for a minute.”

Read all about it here.  This guy is a tyrant.

Trump’s War on the Press in Historical Context

Garrison

Over at “Made by History,” a history blog at The Washington Post, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman offers some historical context for the Trump administration’s attacks on the news media.

Here is a taste:

Accused of being purveyors of “fake news,” journalists who write stories critical of the Trump administration regularly receive warnings on social media that they or members of their family will be killed. The Twitter feeds of Jewish reporters are bombarded with images of gas chambers and ovens. Female reporters get emails telling them they will be raped. Black reporters are assailed by racial epithets and threats of lynching.

In some measure, the public’s antagonism toward the press is not new, and presidents going back to John Adams have expressed frustration with and pursued action against media coverage they believe biased or unfair. But sustained rage directed at reporters has not reached the current level of ferocity since the 1820s and 1830s, when members of the anti-slavery press faced violence and suppression as a matter of course.

Then, as now, reactionary forces aimed their vitriol and hostility at the wrong targets. Many white Americans believed that the increasingly loud voices calling for the abolition of slavery were destabilizing the United States and imperiling white lives. In reality, the problems were the injustices and distortions of democracy wrought by slavery itself. Abolitionists claimed that slaveholders and their supporters ruthlessly stifled opposition to preserve their own power. Trying to intimidate and terrorize reporters who revealed slavery for what it was only proved the point.

Read the entire piece here.

My Latest Piece in the Harrisburg *Patriot News*

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Here is a taste of my “The Press Was Way More Political in Jefferson’s Day–But He Defended It Anyway.”

President Trump has made a habit of attacking the press as being a promoter of “fake news,” part of a “corrupt system,” and the propagator of “lies.” His administration has made enemies of certain outlets, even locking them out of briefings.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fla., he made an appeal to American history to defend his stance, saying presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln “fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. 

Trump even quoted a June 14, 1807, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell in which Jefferson wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The President was correct about Jefferson. The Founding Father had his problems with the press. But what he didn’t note was that despite his agitation with the press, he defended a much more biased press as a necessary part of free speech.

In 1803, during his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean suggesting that the editors of a newspaper critical of his administration should be prosecuted for “pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit.”

This is but one of many examples of Jefferson’s harsh words against a negative press.

But Jefferson also knew the press served an important role.

Read the rest here.

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

Today the POTUS tweeted:

I responded:

Freedom of the press is included in the same First Amendment that protects religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.

I think it is fair to say that no POTUS has liked the press.   But to declare the press the enemy undermines the First Amendment.

Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson thought about a free press:

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

Jefferson said a lot more about the press. Some of it was critical and some of it might provide a usable past for Trump.  See some more of his quotes here.

Here’s the Continental Congress.

The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.–Continental Congress, October 1774.

The Founders were a bit more nuanced about freedom of the press than these quotes suggest, but I do think these quotes represent the Founders’s general understanding of the subject.