The press, says the 45th president of the United States, is “very dangerous & sick.” It causes “great division & distrust.” It is the “enemy of the people.”
Every president—starting with George Washington, who griped about his treatment at the hands of “infamous scribblers”—has felt maligned or misunderstood by the media. The rhetoric now emanating from the White House—remarkable in its ferocity, irresponsibility, and remorselessness—represents something darker. It is an attack not just on individual media outlets, but on the role journalism serves in a free society; not just on specific stories, but on the need for Americans to know the facts; not just on journalists, but on the right of all people to speak their minds.
The press in the days of the Founders was avowedly partisan—its stories frequently scurrilous, its language entirely unrestrained, and its members generally disreputable. James Madison understood all of this with painful clarity when he rose before Congress in 1789 and proposed an amendment to the newly ratified Constitution: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments,” he offered, “and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”