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Editorial: Speaking Truth to Power

We don’t mean to belabor this point. OK … perhaps we do, because the President of the United States continues to give us reason to.

When groups representing major media outlets say President Donald Trump’s actions threaten democracy—and by that they mean American democracy, the political system in which all of us, Republicans and Democrats, have to operate—that is particularly chilling.

The president does not want to attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner; that’s fine. The administration excludes some reporters from a gaggle; that’s not fine, but perhaps not a threat to the underpinnings of the system. But when the president lashes out at critical stories with attempts to delegitimize those and apparently any other critics: That is a big problem for the country.

For their part, news outlets have to try, as hard as it is, to let the facts of their reporting speak for them, rather than allowing a combative attitude to creep into the national dialogue. It helps that the president says things that aren’t true about a lot of subjects, so journalists should not feel singled out.

It is not hard to take a higher road than the president, but that should not be the benchmark. It is, instead, to take a different path altogether.

The president’s barrage of attacks has created a climate of animosity between the White House and the mainstream media unprecedented since the Nixon era. Tension is healthy. Attacks as from a baited bear lashing out are not.

We certainly hope the President’s meeting with FCC chairman Ajit Pai was as advertised by an agency spokesperson, which was just a chance to “warmly reconnect” and that “no proceedings pending at the FCC were discussed.”

We would certainly not like to see any pressure put on Pai from the White House to crack down on the media Trump loves to hate. Pai chafed at what he saw as President Obama’s pressure on his predecessor to adopt a Title II-based network-neutrality regime. We would encourage the new chairman to view any pressure from this White House with similar pushback.

This might be a time for Pai to use his bully pulpit to speak out strongly in favor or a free press and against any untoward pressure. He missed an opportunity to do that in an oversight hearing last week when pressed on the president’s comments.

But doing so was advised last week, courtesy of former FCC chairman Michael Copps, who blogged the following:

“The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has been an eloquent spokesman for freedom of the press. I’m confident he agrees that we should not foreclose any points of view unless they pose a threat of violence. Just last year, he said, ‘I think it’s dangerous, frankly, that we don’t see more often people espousing the First Amendment view that we should have a robust marketplace of ideas where everybody should be willing and able to participate.’ ”

The party affiliation of the president should not matter when he threatens the freedom and independence of the news media, one of the necessary and important checks on his power.

More people need to start telling truth to that power.