Trump and the Media War

Written by Jan LaRue

The anti-Trump media are comparing President Donald Trump to Joseph Stalin because the president fires back at his critics.

An allusion to the wisdom of philosophers residing in the joint applies to media whiners: “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the slime.”

The president’s daily dose of name-calling by media includes the following: he’s Hitler, Stalin, racist, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, racist, Nero, racist, mentally deranged, tyrant, racist, unfit, fascist, racist, dictator, hateful, racist, liar, illegitimate, colluder of all things Russian, schmuck, jackass, warmonger, and racist, and that’s just MSNBC.

But a presidential tweet calling some of the press “the enemy of the people” is a bridge too far, reaching all the way to Stalingrad – in which case, actually, they’d be gagged in a gulag instead of broadcasting their drivel worldwide.

These are elites who imagine that the First Amendment is their exclusive venue as watchdogs of the political galaxy.  In their galaxy, no one gets to watchdog them.

They’ve yet to grasp that they’re growling above their weight class.  Presidents are supposed to silently suffer the barks and bites of junkyard press in the name of “looking and sounding presidential.”

Until now.

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” is an old adage irrelevant to someone with 54 million followers on Twitter and a host of supporters barking back at media on talk radio, the internet, TV, and assorted social platforms.

No one is arguing that media shouldn’t criticize this or any other president.  Before they do, however, there’s a man with whom they should familiarize themselves and whom they should emulate.

His name is John Peter Zenger.  The first time I participated in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was especially meaningful when I saw the “John Peter Zenger Room.”  I had studied his case in law school:

John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The NEW YORK WEEKLY JOURNAL.  This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt royal governor, William S. Cosby.  It accused the government of rigging elections and allowing the French enemy to explore New York harbor.  It accused the governor of an assortment of crimes and basically labeled him an idiot.  Although Zenger merely printed the articles, he was hauled into jail.  The authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.

In 1733, Zenger was accused of libel, a legal term whose meaning is quite different for us today [from what] it was for him.  In his day it was libel when you published information that was opposed to the government.  Truth or falsity [was] irrelevant.  He never denied printing the pieces. The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question.  Something very surprising happened, however.

A summary of what Zenger endured and accomplished as a printer and as a voice for liberty and freedom of the press is mentioned in a 2002 case from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Pap’s AM v. City of Erie:

Freedom of the press – the right to freely publish and fearlessly criticize – was a plant of slow growth.  It did not spring full-grown as Minerva did from the brow of Jupiter, nor rise as quickly as did the warriors when Cadmus sowed the dragon’s teeth.  It was planted by many hardy, freedom-loving souls and nurtured by public opinion for several centuries before it grew to be a tree of gigantic stature.  Government both in England and the United States constantly tried to suppress or destroy it.  Freedom of the press became a recognized inherent Right only after and as a result of the famous Zenger libel case in New York City in 1735.  In that case Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, argued vigorously for the right of a newspaper to criticize freely and truthfully the acts and conduct of governmental officials.  The Court refused to recognize the theory of freedom of the press, or permit Hamilton to prove “Truth” as a defense; nevertheless the jury, ignoring the charge of the Court, acquitted Zenger.  Public opinion rallied to the cause which Hamilton pleaded and freedom of the press gradually became recognized as an inalienable Right which was ordained and affirmed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Constitution of Pennsylvania.

Why does President Trump call some of the media “fake news”?  Because much of their criticism fails the Zenger test.  As the court said, the press has every right to “criticize freely and truthfully” the acts and conduct of government officials.  (Emphasis added.)

Press credentials are not a license to lie in the name of the First Amendment.

There’s another man whose words all of us should heed.  “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Jan LaRue is senior legal analyst with the American Civil Rights Union.

This article was originally published at