EDITORIAL: Who’s an enemy of the people?

BLAME IT ON THE HEAT or the humidity or the ebbing length of the day. Call it an overreaction, but swimming in the flood of news these days can make a person edgy.

Last week President Trump renewed his practice of calling the media “enemies of the people.” It’s possible he never abandoned that crowd-pleasing line when speaking to his supporters. It just got lost among his other irrational statements. Either way, it would be helpful to know whether community newspapers fit his definition of enemies of the people. And what would it mean if he does have us on his list?

We know that one of the steps the president took even before he opened his broad trade offensive worldwide was to impose new tariffs on Canadian newsprint, the paper used to print The Columbia Paper and many of the other newspapers around the country. The handful of companies that still produce newsprint in the U.S. don’t want these tariffs.

Except for one firm, a relatively small paper company in Washington state that’s owned by a hedge fund with ties to the White House.

These tariffs have taken effect but are not yet fully implemented. And without the president telling us, we don’t know whether the newsprint tariffs are a part of his trade strategy or if they are intended to punish newspapers. We do know that they are raising our costs, and that ultimately either we have to cut back on what we do, or we’ll have to pass the tariff costs on to you, our readers. Either way you–who we’d call “the people”–are the losers.

There’s more than just the cost of newsprint that puts the finances of newspapers at risk. Start with the shrinking audience of people who know what a newspaper is. And there’s the dramatic decline in local and regional advertisers. There’s also the migration of advertisers to digital ads, lured by the prospect of reaching multitudes of consumer eyeballs, however sketchy some of those claims may be. None of that was caused by Mr. Trump.

When the President of the United States works up a crowd by railing at the press, he sometimes singles out a particular reporter or owner. It’s a tactic that’s been around as long as there have been demagogues who spout such ugly threats. What makes his demonizing a group as enemies of the people so threatening is the ripple effect it has on all of us in the news business. Last week’s footage of Trump supporters in Ohio yelling and in some cases screaming at the TV camera wasn’t directed at an individual so much as the institution once considered important enough to be protected in the Constitution.

So if the press is the enemy of the people and there are tools that government has–regardless of constitutional protections–to weaken or destroy newspapers, TV and radio, where would we turn for local news? Would people be more likely to attend the meetings of town and school boards, planning and zoning boards, county government, court sessions and all the community gatherings that help make living here so special? With no non-government source of information about the workings of local government, how will we govern ourselves?

Surveys say many people get their news from Facebook. But what you find on social media is not always what it pretends to be. Posts originating from the Russian government won’t help us make informed decisions about Columbia County.

We appointed ourselves to take on the project called journalism in Columbia County. Nobody elected us, but in a way, our readers vote each week for sustaining a publication that collects local information, confirms its authenticity and the presents it to you in an orderly and–we hope–engaging newspaper.

If the president deems those activities are the behavior of enemies of the people, we wonder what his alternative is? To date, his tweets have not addressed local issues facing Columbia County. And the casual manner in which he misstates facts and changes his stories probably wouldn’t help much anyway.

We urge the president to rescind the tariffs on newsprint as unnecessary and harmful to U.S. businesses, including us. But we have no illusions that he will give up calling all of us enemies of the people. It’s too powerful a tool for him to surrender. Instead, we’ll have to depend our readers to show him that around here, at least, the people don’t believe it.

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