Far more insidious is Trump’s unprecedented war on objective reality, a classic tyrant’s tactic. In Abrams’s words, “If news is ‘fake’ not because it is untrue but because it is insufficiently supportive of him, the very relevance of truth-telling becomes at risk … Cynical or repeatedly false criticism [of the free press] ultimately leads to an ill-informed and ultimately ill-led people. And when the criticism is often, very often, rooted in a sort of ignorant rage, it too easily can lead to an ignorant public led by a repressive regime.”
And, on Thursday, it was precisely those burgeoning concerns that prompted more than 300 newspapers and media outlets to stand in solidarity—an unprecedented moment because notoriously independent journalists rarely collaborate on anything. The so-called elite papers wrote editorials defending their constitutionally empowered mission to hold power accountable, but, most importantly, they were joined by smaller newsrooms in virtually every state, red as well as blue—from Boise, Idaho, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Topeka, Kansas, and Kokomo, Indiana.
It’s debatable that these editorials will sway many minds and reduce the ambient toxicity. Some media commentators even denounced the project as further grist for Trump’s claim that the so-called Fake News Media is conspiring against him. (Indeed, Trump tweeted twice on Thursday about media “collusion.”) Jack Shafer, who covers the press for Politico, writes that the “self-stroking” editorials give Trump “fresh material.” And Carl Cannon at RealClearPolitics contends that the editorials make the press “look overtly partisan, while underscoring Trump’s basic point, which is that the media hates him so much we don’t follow our normal rules of behavior. When is the last time the Fourth Estate ran what amounts to a coordinated campaign?”
The answer: Never. But perhaps unprecedented assaults require unprecedented pushback—especially now, when 51 percent of Republicans reportedly side with Trump that the free press is the enemy of the people (a nine-point spike since June); especially at a historic moment when serial lies are being weaponized as credible counternarratives, a moment when empiricism itself is under assault, prompting the literary critic Michiko Kakutani to write in her new book, The Death of Truth, that “Trump’s unhinged presidency represents some sort of climax in the warping of reality.”
The real question is: What’s the most effective pushback strategy? Abrams told me, “Most of the people who read the editorials are likely to have already been persuaded about the danger of Trump’s rhetoric. But it’s important for the press to speak up for itself. The press has to defend its role. If some people are offended by hundreds of papers defending themselves, so be it. If they don’t speak up, others won’t. The editorials were a useful, modest step.”