Free Press Under Fire
When a Wannabe Dictator Attempts to Destroy Truth
BY TIM MUNKEBY
When I taught high school in Bogota, Colombia in the mid-1970s, we lived near the center of the city and very near the national university. It was closed when we moved in, which I thought odd. But the grounds were beautiful, and I picnicked there one day with my wife and children.
When we returned home that day, we were surprised to see a canvas-backed truck parked nearby. It was filled with solders carrying machine guns. We went to bed with some trepidation and, sure enough, all through the night we heard gun fire and loud blasts and explosions. It sounded like a war was going on.
Everyone at my school was talking about university students who’d been protesting the government when the university opened. Many had been wounded and some had been killed.
But I read in the newspapers that the protests had been peaceful. There was no trouble. Nobody was hurt, they said.
I was stunned. What the hell? How could the news be so blaringly untruthful?
When I expressed to the students at my school how appalled I was, they shook their heads and rolled their eyes at my naivety. They said the truth wouldn’t look good for Colombia’s president, who was up for re-election.
This was the first time I realized the necessity of a free press, in order to learn the truth. To assure that the truth would be told.
World history is strewn with dictatorial, king-like leaders whose people have been blocked from the truth, from what was really happening in their country. Their news was simply controlled propaganda. Truly “fake news.” There have been despots like Gadhafi, Pol Pot, Stalin, and, of course, Hitler—all of whom controlled the press in their countries. And today, for example, there is Maduro in Venezuela and Assad in Syria. Both are destroying their countries, doing anything—including killing their countrymen—to stay in power.
In the 2006 historical drama The Last King of Scotland, movie-goers got an inside glimpse at the making of a malignant dictator. The film tells the story of a young Scottish doctor who travels to Uganda and becomes the personal physician of President Idi Amin. Amin, growing paranoid over time, fears something like a “deep state” is usurping his power and becomes both narcissistic and delusional. It ends badly.
I presume many other dictators are narcissistic and prone to being delusional, as well, in order to convince themselves that what they’re doing is somehow acceptable.
When I returned to the United States from Bogota, I was so appreciative of what we had in America: a democracy, where a president was held accountable and cared for the welfare of his citizens. My appreciation lagged when it became apparent Richard Nixon was not always truthful and lives were lost in his attempt to remain in power. But at least he wasn’t seeking to be “king.”
That could not happen in the United States. Because Nixon wasn’t able to control the press, eventually we knew the truth. He was impeached, and he resigned.
I believed that the American people, respected around the world, would never willingly or knowingly elect as their leader a delusional narcissist who would endeavor to destroy their free press to hide the truth. A leader who would lie regularly and show no empathy for the lives of citizens. A leader who could not be trusted because his intentions were vain and self-serving. A leader who would appoint his unqualified family members and those who promised fealty—to him and not the country. A leader who would denigrate or banish from government anyone who disagreed with him. A leader who would fire and punish truth-tellers.
Couldn’t happen in America.
In a dictatorship or monarchy, the king might exaggerate his status to inflate and satisfy his ego. (How large was his crowd of admirers? The largest crowd ever!) He would have to demand that his appointed minions back him, no matter what. He would also want the press to support this illusion. And he would promise rewards for those weak-willed enough to do so. If anyone questioned the illusion, they—reminiscent of Hitler—would be called an “enemy of the people.”
But in America there is a separation of powers. The citizens, because of a free press, can see the truth. And Congress can proclaim that a delusional leader is unworthy to govern. They certainly wouldn’t support his delusions.
Lying about the size of a crowd is one thing, but what if something like, say, a pandemic, spread throughout the “king’s” country? What if his minions and some confused, indiscriminate citizens fanned the “king’s” delusional flames? Then his delusional narcissism could be lethal. To remain in power, he might try to convince his people that there really was no pandemic. It was only a “hoax” drummed up by his enemies to discredit him. It was just a little flu bug and would magically (delusionally!) disappear. After thousands of his countrymen got sick and started dying, he would blame it on someone else, a predecessor or even another country. To further deflect blame, he might even accuse scientists of not doing their job. Without a free press, his people will likely believe him if he claims “no responsibility” for thousands of people dying—that scientists, incorrectly, had not warned him immediately of the impending crisis.
Of course, this would never happen in the United States. With a Congress and a judicial branch granted equal and separate powers, action would be taken immediately. The president would be seen for his delusional narcissism and be overruled. Public health officials would be prepared to meet the crisis, our country would be a model for the world on how to handle a crisis.
Unless the “king,” concerned more about his golden throne, banished or discredited qualified scientists that might not agree with him. If so, tens of thousands of countrymen could suffer and die. Millions of people would be out of work. Businesses across the land would fail.
But certainly not in America, the greatest country in the world. Our democracy and separation of powers would not allow it. We would be prepared. Our leaders would care more about the lives of our countrymen than power and money. The world would see us as leaders.
I do believe we have the greatest country in the world. Yet that sentiment is being threatened, not only by a delusional narcissist mocked around the world for his egomania and mistruths, disregard for the environment and climate change, but by the political party that has enabled him. This would-be king, by his own admission, discredits our free press since he cannot control it. People become confused. They don’t know what to believe. Why would the party in power in Congress support obvious lies?
The nation is divided. Rather than rally friends and allies, this would-be king alienates, blames, points fingers. He amasses his own true believers that follow him, remarkably, despite members of the legitimate press steadfastly reporting the truth. The politicized segment of the press that supports the “king,” however, spreads fantastical lies. The truth is blurred, distorted, destroyed.
This has become too reminiscent of my experience in Bogota. During that year in Colombia, the incumbent was able to deceitfully discredit his challenger, sufficiently enough that he dropped out of the race. Only one candidate ran; it was a faux democracy. With no free press to advocate for truth, there are no free people.
Please tell me that cannot happen in America.
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