Opinion | Morgan Liddick: The president and the press
On Your Right
Sorry, Mr. President. Your libel lawsuit against The New York Times is wrong, frivolous and dangerous. It should be withdrawn. A “my bad” would be nice, as well. It’ll never happen, but it should.
For those living under rocks the past couple weeks, President Donald Trump is suing The New York Times for libel over an op-ed piece written by former Editor Max Frankel and published in March 2019. Titled “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo,” it continued to toe the disproved line that Team Trump and Vlad the Terrible had a nudge-nudge, wink-wink “overarching agreement,” which traded help against Hillary Clinton for a more pro-Russia foreign policy. It was the sort of anti-Trump nonsense that is in vogue these days, but the administration argues that this is a particularly egregious case since the Times not only knew the opinion was false, but published it anyway out of extreme and malicious bias — one of the few grounds allowing a public figure to sue a media outlet for libel.
Knowing falsehood and Trump hatred notwithstanding, the administration’s action in this case is a serious attempt to shush American media and as such deserves as large a red card as can be thrown. The media may be biased; it may be myopic to the point of blindness and so vicious it would put Cujo to shame. But an opinion is exactly that: An interpretation, not a recitation, of fact. Slant is part of the territory.
Sadly, the urge to stifle contrary opinion has a very long history in our country. On July 14, 1798, President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which among other things made “malicious publication” of articles critical of public officials a crime. Until the Jefferson administration took power in 1800, the act was used to charge 25 newspapermen, mostly political opponents, with treason. It was a serious blot on an otherwise productive presidency and contributed directly to the collapse of the federalists as a political force in the growing nation.
Nor was the Sedition Act the only instance. Abraham Lincoln shuttered more than 300 newspapers and jailed or exiled several editors, more often for their opinions than for violations of national security. The same was true of progressive icon Woodrow Wilson, who added the wrinkle of a propaganda department, which so stoked national paranoia and xenophobia that these emotions echoed in American politics and foreign policy for decades.Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and other presidents of the modern era continued the tradition of seeing at least some of the media as “the enemy.” In most instances it was uncalled for; in the present instance, it is unwise.
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To repeat the old saw, opinions are like (insert well-known body part here); everybody has one. Well-founded or ill, well-argued or inarticulate, childish and frivolous or closely-reasoned and vital, they are all only what people think about things. And while how and what we think about the reality in which we find ourselves matters in terms of how we conduct ourselves, our relationship with that reality should remain contingent: Someone cleverer or more careful might see things we do not. So while we might chuckle at an opinion that seems to arrive from a planet circling another sun, its appearance causes us no physical harm, so we should allow it to shuffle off to the obscure death it so richly deserves. At least this is the classically liberal position on matters of opinion.
However, the grievance industry lately has made enormous inroads into this thinking. For a large segment of our population, any opinion contrary to its own is not only anathema but an assault that must be repaid with violence, à la UC Berkeley’s young blackshirts descending on conclaves featuring the likes of Ann Coulter or Ben Shapiro. And in a deliciously ironic sense, the president’s action against The New York Times takes a page out of this book: “What you say causes me actual anguish, so you cannot be allowed to say it.”
The problem is that these actions leave us all poorer and more isolated. Without active engagement with uncongenial opinions, we forget to be civil, a skill most useful in disagreement. Without exposure to other points of view, we cannot properly evaluate the truth of our own ideas. Down this road is atomization, mutual suspicion and, eventually, the evaporation of the republic. Better, when faced with lunatic hatefulness, simply to laugh in its face.
Better by far, Mr. President.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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