One of the reasons I find this attack on “the media” by Donald Trump and his cabinet and his supporters so disturbing is that it’s, by definition, un-American.
How do we define “American”? One definition is “a person born in the USA to American parents”. This is a simple geography-based legal definition. Another definition is “a person who exhibits the character traits and esteems the values of the American people”. Although both definitions are true, this definition is looser, a bit circular, and more accurate. We can say that a citizen of the USA who values totalitarian rule is less American than one who values democracy and liberty.
We can say this because a fairly specific set of principles are evident in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And there is no better source for a definition of “American” than the documents that define our country. The most robust and accurate definition of “American” that I know is “exhibiting or relating to the principles, values, attitudes, and intents of the founders of the United States of America as evident by the rhetoric of the country’s founding documents”.
This is the full text of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“The media” or “the press” is therefore, by definition, an American institution, and respect for its freedom of operation is an American value. And any attempt to limit that freedom is therefore, by definition, un-American.
Part of the work of “the media” or “the press” is to act, in a way, as a third-party conscience for members of the government—to expose their misdeeds, their misuses of taxpayer money, their abuses of power, etc. When members of the government advance policies that act in their interest over the interest of the citizens, or when the government lies to or attempts to mislead the people, then it’s the media’s job to make that known. It’s the media’s job to be critical of the government. When members of the media report only the positive, or exclusively what the government approves, they fail their job, they fail the American people, and they fail the intent of the First Amendment.
It’s in this sense that whisteblowers are American heroes. Donald Trump is absolutely wrong to call Chelsea Manning a traitor. Our Constitution includes a basic distrust of government and a call to citizens to keep government in check. Unquestioning, uncritical loyalty to an abusive, exploitative government is not an American virtue.
Of course the American people—including the president—have the right not to value the freedom of the press, but to do so is un-American. And any policies Donald Trump might advance in effort to limit the freedom of the media would be unconstitutional.