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Boyd Matheson: When it's the president vs. the press, America loses

The presidency and the press have had a long, turbulent and often troubled relationship. Presidents have agendas, and most have an inherent need to be liked. The press has a purpose to report and shine a light, free from bias and agenda, with transparency and accountability. Both should be centered in truth and what is best for the American people. While presidents and the press aren’t likely to agree on what balanced, principled and fair reporting is, they should agree on the importance of the difficult dance they do together and the need for mutual respect.

It should be noted that while President Trump’s railing against the press is unbecoming and unnerving, it is far from unprecedented. Compared to John Adams, for example, the president is actually quite understated in dealing with the press. Adams signed the Sedition Act into law in 1798 because he was fearful of foreign influence in the young nation. This law prohibited the press from criticizing the government. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson corrected this erroneous approach to the press in 1800.

The reality is presidents from both parties have struggled with their relationship with the press. President Obama regularly called out the conservative press as a propaganda machine. George H.W. Bush bristled at what he felt was unwarranted scrutiny from the press. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon often resorted to bullying and punishing those in the press who were critical. Interestingly, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, while often frustrated with the press, maintained a positive approach, at least in public.

The relationship between the current occupant of the White House and the press is one of contempt. And that is not good for the country. The president's contempt for media is well established and is reciprocated by many in the national media.

For the president to call the press the enemy of the people is actually an attack on the American people. The founders recognized that the First Freedoms — including freedom of the press — were critical to empowering the people to keep government and politicians in check.

Journalist are tasked with asking direct and even difficult questions, but they must do so without contempt and without disrespecting the office or the office holder. A number of national reporters have lost sight of that critical balance.

Last week, CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who can at times seem consumed with his contempt for the president, pressured Sarah Sanders during a White House briefing to say, “the press was not the enemy of the people.” Sarah Sanders then laid out that Acosta, and most of the reporters in the room, had sat smugly at the Correspondence Dinner while a comedian attacked Sander’s appearance, called her a traitor to her gender in a lengthy string of verbal shots. Sanders also noted that she is the first press secretary in history to require Secret Service protection.

The White House press briefing is supposed to be a question and answer session about the presidents’ agenda and activities — not about reporters or even the press secretary. It was never intended to be a cable news cage-match of contempt.

This contemptuous rhetoric may be good for ratings, and it may be helpful for the president to gin-up his base, but the lack of civility keeps us a safe distance from having the conversations we need to have to solve the challenges the country faces. Such contempt also allows both ends of the political spectrum to raise billions of dollars in campaign cash, but that money won’t buy us a better nation.

The president regularly fans the flame, which creates an environment where anger, angst, fear and frustration are weaponized against those he perceives are against him. The same Jim Acosta has found himself in hostile and verbally abusive crowds, particularly at the president's campaign rallies where Acosta is regularly shouted down.

This is not about group hugs or "Kumbaya" moments between the president and the press. America is actually at its best when we are a country of big ideas and honest, open and even roiling debate.

If there is one area where Russian meddling in America is succeeding, it is in sowing the seeds of discord and distrust — not just in our elections, but in our institutions including government and the media, and ultimately in the trust we have in our communities and in each other. It is time for the president and the press to put down their mutual contempt and begin again with their difficult dance.