New York Times on iphone screen "To Serve His Country, President Biden Should Leave the Race'

This illustration photo created on June 28, 2024 in Los Angeles, shows the New York Times editorial calling for President Joe Biden to leave the presidential race on a smartphone screen next to a screen showing a photo of former President Donald Trump during the June 27 presidential debate.

(Photo by Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

The Corporate Media Continue to Ignore That Trump Is an Explicit Threat to Democracy

Somebody should tell the New York Times and others that it is, in fact, their job to treat one candidate with pronounced alarm when the threat posed is as clear and severe as this.

Donald Trump and many of his supporters have explicitly promised to overturn American democracy, using Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” Hungarian model — where the press is controlled, political opposition sidelined or imprisoned, and oligarchs run the government — as their model.

But you rarely hear that from our media.

Back on May 5th, Semafor’s Ben Smith interviewed New York Times Editor Joe Kahn, who echoed a perspective that seems widespread across America’s mainstream media newsrooms: that their job is to report what they consider “news,” but not to defend democracy itself.

His exact quote was:

“One of the absolute necessities of democracy is having a free and fair and open election where people can compete for votes, and the role of the news media in that environment is not to skew your coverage towards one candidate or the other, but just to provide very good, hard-hitting, well-rounded coverage of both candidates, and informing voters. If you believe in democracy, I don’t see how we get past the essential role of quality media in informing people about their choice in a presidential election.
“To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda.”

Kahn has been extensively criticized for his and the Times’ unwillingness to use their ability to choose and frame news stories that highlight Trump’s naked threat to democracy and Biden’s robust defense of it, presenting them instead as merely two “normal” candidates’ agendas.

Defending democracy is part of their job, and an essential one, at that.

Which raises a vital question, beyond all the political and partisan sturmund drang: Does the American press have a historic and even constitutional obligation to defend democracy and explicitly call out threats to it?

There is only one industry that is specifically protected — or even mentioned — by the Framers in the Constitution. It’s not the defense industry, the transportation business, or even banking, all necessary and foundational to the development of a safe nation and thriving business economy: Exclusively, it’s the press.

The Founders and Framers did this because they explicitly believed that a free and independent press was a necessary prerequisite to a functioning democratic republic. That it was as essential as a functioning legislative, executive, or judicial branch of government. That, in fact, none of those three could truly be held to account when they crept or bolted toward upending democracy without a press explicitly defending our form of government itself.

On June 15, 1780, almost a decade before the Constitution was ratified and modern America came into existence, the legislature of Massachusetts laid it out in Article XVI of their constitution:

“The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this Commonwealth.”

They weren’t the first nor the last; North Carolina, on December 18, 1776, just five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, added Article XV to their Constitution:

“That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and therefore ought never to be restrained.”

Multiple other states similarly mentioned freedom of the press in their state constitutions and laws, although those two made clearest their belief that the press was an “essential” “bulwark of liberty” if their states were to function as democracies.

Following his attendance at the Constitutional Convention (where freedom of the press was discussed, but only added later with the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791), Ben Franklin noted:

“[S]o much has been written and published on the federal Constitution, and the necessity of checks in all other parts of good government has been so clearly and learnedly explained, I find myself so far enlightened as to suspect some check may be proper in this [press] part also; but I have been at a loss to imagine any that may not be construed an infringement of the sacred liberty of the press.” [emphasis his]

In other words, without a functioning press explicitly defending our form of government, the system of checks-and-balances between the three branches of government cribbed from Montesquieu couldn’t truly function.

The “father of the Constitution” James Madison made clear his belief that the press had an obligation to defend democracy, writing in his resolution from Virginia:

“[The] free communication among the people thereon [the press], has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

Even George Washington chimed in:

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

In 1786, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights author Thomas Jefferson made it explicit:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

In the third year of his presidency (1804), Jefferson — in the face of vicious attacks in the Federalist newspapers — doubled down:

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, & which we trust will end in establishing the fact that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found is the freedom of the press. It is therefore the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

In that, he was referring to the battle royal he’d won, defending freedom of the press, just four years earlier.

It’s one of the most fascinating — and, given Trump’s promises to shut down and imprison “fake news” reporters and publications that criticize him — prescient stories that most Americans (including, apparently, New York Times Editor Joe Kahn) know nothing about.

Both Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, for example, hated the news coverage they were getting back in the day and Adams’ overreaction is a cautionary tale for those in the media who don’t think a vital part of their job is to report aggressively on threats to democracy.

It started in 1798 when Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the Philadelphia newspaper the Aurora, began to speak out against the policies of then-President John Adams.

Bache supported then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (today called the Democratic Party) when President John Adams led the conservative Federalists (who today would be philosophically similar to Republicans).

Bache attacked Adams in an editorial, calling the president “old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams.”

To be sure, Bache wasn’t the only one attacking Adams in 1798. His Aurora was one of about 20 independent newspapers aligned with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, and many were openly questioning Adams’ policies and ridiculing Adams’ fondness for formality and grandeur.

On the Federalist side, conservative newspaper editors were equally outspoken. Noah Webster wrote that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were “the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.” Another Federalist characterized the Democratic-Republicans as “democrats, momocrats and all other kinds of rats.”

But while Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans had learned to develop a thick skin, University of Missouri-Rolla history professor Larry Gragg points out in an October 1998 article in American History magazine that Bache’s writings sent Adams and his wife into a self-righteous frenzy.

Abigail wrote to her husband and others that Benjamin Franklin Bache was expressing the “malice” of a man possessed by Satan. The Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were engaging, she said, in “abuse, deception, and falsehood,” and Bache was a “lying wretch.”

Abigail insisted that her husband and Congress must act to punish Franklin’s grandson for his “most insolent and abusive” words about her husband and his administration. His “wicked and base, violent and calumniating abuse” must be stopped, she demanded.

Abigail Adams wrote that Bache’s “abuse” being “leveled against the Government” of the United States (her husband) could even plunge the nation into a “civil war.”

Worked into a frenzy by the Adams’ and the rightwing Federalist newspapers of the day, Federalist senators and congressmen — who that year controlled both legislative houses along with the presidency — came to the defense of Adams by passing a series of four laws that came to be known together as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The vote was so narrow — 44 to 41 in the House of Representatives — that in order to ensure passage the lawmakers wrote a sunset provision into their most odious parts: those laws, unless renewed, would expire the last day of John Adams’ first term of office, March 3, 1801.

Ignoring the First Amendment’s protections of the press so he could pursue his vengeance, President Adams ordered his “unpatriotic” opponents who were writing for or publishing Democratic-Republican newspapers arrested, and specified that only the 100% Federalist judges on the Supreme Court would be both judges and jurors in their federal criminal trials.

Bache, often referred to as “Lightning Rod Junior” after his famous grandfather, was the first to be hauled into jail (the day before the laws even became effective!), followed by New York TimePiece editor John Daly Burk, which put his paper out of business. Bache died of yellow fever while awaiting trial, and Burk accepted deportation to avoid imprisonment and then fled.

Others didn’t avoid prison so easily. Editors of seventeen of the twenty or so Democratic-Republican-affiliated newspapers were arrested and ten were convicted and imprisoned; many of their newspapers went out of business.

Bache’s successor, William Duane (who both took over the newspaper and also married Bache’s widow), continued the attacks on Adams, publishing in the June 24, 1799 issue of the Aurora a private letter John Adams had written to Tench Coxe in which then-Vice President Adams admitted that there were still men influenced by Great Britain in the U.S. government.

The letter cast Adams in an embarrassing light, as it implied that Adams himself may still have British loyalties (something suspected by many, ever since his pre-revolutionary defense of British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre), and made the quick-tempered Adams furious.

Imprisoning his opponents in the press was only the beginning for Adams, though. Knowing Jefferson would mount a challenge to his presidency in 1800, he and the Federalists hatched a plot to pass secret legislation that would have disputed presidential elections decided “in secret” and “behind closed doors.”

Duane got evidence of the plot, and published it just after having published the letter that so infuriated Adams.

It was altogether too much for the president who didn’t want to let go of his power: Adams had Duane arrested and hauled before the Court on Sedition Act charges.

Duane would have stayed in jail had not Vice President Jefferson intervened, letting Duane leave jail to “consult his attorney” (Jefferson himself). Duane went into hiding until the end of the Adams’ presidency.

Emboldened, the conservative Federalists reached out beyond just newspaper editors.

When Congress let out in July of 1798, John and Abigail Adams made the trip home to Braintree, Massachusetts in their customary fashion — in fancy carriages as part of a parade, with each city they passed through firing cannons and ringing church bells.

(The Federalists were, after all, as Jefferson said, the party of “the rich and the well born.” Although Adams wasn’t one of the wealthy, like Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito he basked in their approval and adopted royal-like trappings, later discarded by Jefferson when elected president in 1800 as Dan Sisson and I detail in our book The American Revolution of 1800.)

As the Adams family entourage, full of pomp and ceremony, passed through Newark, New Jersey, a man named Luther Baldwin was sitting in a tavern and probably quite unaware that he was about to make a fateful comment that would help change history.

As Adams rode by, soldiers manning the Newark cannons loudly shouted the Adams-mandated chant, “Behold the chief who now commands!” and fired their salutes. Hearing the cannon fire as Adams drove by outside the bar, in a moment of drunken candor Luther Baldwin said:

“There goes the President and they are firing at his arse.” Baldwin further compounded his sin by adding that, “I do not care if they fire thro’ his arse!”

The tavern’s owner, a Federalist named John Burnet, overheard the remark and turned Baldwin in to Adams’ police: the hapless drunk was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for uttering “seditious words tending to defame the President and Government of the United States.”

The Alien and Sedition Acts reflected the new attitude Adams and his wife had brought to Washington D.C. in 1797, a take-no-prisoners type of politics in which no opposition was tolerated.

And because John Adams had essentially shut down all the opposition newspapers, he felt increasingly emboldened when it came to harassing and imprisoning his political opponents.

After the Baldwin incident, Adams turned his wrath on opposition politicians, causing Vice President Jefferson, halfway through the Adams presidency just after the passage of the Acts in 1798, to refuse to visit the White House or speak in person to President Adams for the rest of their lives (they reconciled when elderly, but entirely by mailed correspondence).

For example, on January 30, 1798, Vermont’s Democratic-Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon spoke out on the floor of the House against “the malign influence of [Federalist] Connecticut politicians.”

Charging that Adams’ and the Federalists only served the interests of the rich and had “acted in opposition to the interests and opinions of nine-tenths of their constituents,” Lyon infuriated the conservatives.

The situation simmered for two weeks, and on the morning of February 15, 1798, Federalist anger — fueled by a near monopoly of federalist leaning newspapers editorializing against him — reached a boiling point when conservative Connecticut Congressman Roger Griswold attacked Lyon on the House floor with a hickory cane.

As Congressman George Thatcher wrote in a letter now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society:

“Mr. Griswald [sic] [was] laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon. Griswald continued his blows on the head, shoulder, & arms of Lyon, [who was] protecting his head & face as well as he could. Griswald tripped Lyon & threw him on the floor & gave him one or two [more] blows in the face.”

In sharp contrast to his predecessor George Washington, America’s second president (Adams) had succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and division in the new republic, and it brought out the worst in his conservative supporters.

Across the new nation, Federalist mobs and Federalist-controlled police and militia attacked Democratic-Republican newspapers and shouted down or threatened individuals who dared speak out in public against Adams.

Even members of Congress were not immune from the long arm of Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts.

When Congressman Lyon — already hated by the Federalists for his opposition to the law, and recently caned in Congress by Federalist Griswold — wrote a newspaper article pointing out Adams’ “continual grasp for power” and suggesting that Adams had an “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice,” Federalists convened a federal grand jury and indicted Lyon for bringing “the President and government of the United States into contempt.”

Lyon, who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was led through his home town of Vergennes, Vermont in shackles. He ran for re-election from his 12x16-foot Vergennes jail cell and handily won his seat in the election of 1800.

“It is quite a new kind of jargon,” Lyon wrote from jail to his constituents, “to call a Representative of the People an Opposer of the Government because he does not, as a legislator, advocate and acquiesce in every proposition that comes from the Executive.”

The moral of the story is that newspapers are, as Kahn noted, the Fourth Estate, functionally a fourth branch of government necessary to hold politicians and judges to account when they violate the fundamental principles of our republic. Defending democracy is part of their job, and an essential one, at that.

As Jefferson wrote to his friend Edward Carrington after having been particularly savaged by newspapers of his day:

“They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty.
“The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro' the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Trump, his MAGA movement, and Project 2025 represent an explicit threat to American democracy.

From the founding of our republic, the power of the press to call out anti-democratic behavior has been a firewall, protecting our form of government. It is their job.

Hopefully, somebody will tell The New York Times and other major media.

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