This is an ugly charge with an ugly history.
Ironically enough, before 2017, probably the best-known use of the phrase was meant to be ironic. In Henrik Ibsen’s classic play An Enemy of the People, the man so named is the hero, a doctor-turned-whistleblower, who tries to warn the residents of his town that their drinking water he been dangerously polluted. In other words, he was a friend, if not a hero of the people.
But the phrase does have a ring to it, and had been used un-ironically, as a serious accusation against, the mad fiddler, Emperor Nero. The Roman Senate called him hostis publicus, public enemy close to 2000 years before Ibsen.
Just under 90 years before the play hit the Oslo stage, on Christmas Day 1793, Robespierre, the principal promulgator of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” said: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.”
That’s the way the phrase was used in the 20th Century by the Bolshevik dictator Vladimir Lenin and the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer,– as a summons to murder. In the 21st Century, those labeled “enemies of the people” are just – I think – being set up for character assassination.
Still, when President Trump, Tweeted the charge, he was confirming the deepest and most dangerous antagonism between a President and journalists, I believe, in American history.
This uniquely poisonous attack is part of an angry turbulence which has beset my beloved profession, and challenged the legitimacy of its cherished role in American democracy. Teaching students in America and more than 50 other countries across the world about journalism and its role in democratic politics is among the chief missions of the News Literacy Project, whose Founder, President and CEO is our guest today, Alan Miller.
Alan Miller reported for The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, and The Times Union of Albany, New York. He was a reporter with the Los Angeles Times from 1987 to 2008, and worked as an investigative reporter at its Washington bureau. Then he became the president and CEO of the News Literacy Project. By latest estimate, the News Literacy Project curriculum is being taught in middle and high schools in all 50 states and in 38 foreign countries, giving the Project, Philly.com reported, “a theoretical reach of more than 600,000 students.”