Arizona’s two Republican senators asserted themselves Wednesday as defenders of the free press.
Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor for a well-publicized defense of the truth, as President Donald Trump was potentially preparing for an Orwellian “fake news” award ceremony.
“The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him ‘fake news,’ it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press,” Flake said.
“Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S.-based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth,” he continued. “To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.”
Watch: Flake Condemns Trump’s Attacks on Media
Flake’s home state colleague, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, joined in the sentiment. McCain, who has been at home while battling brain cancer, wrote an opinion piece that appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
McCain, like Flake, highlighted how Trump’s use of the term “fake news” to belittle unfavorable reporting and the journalists behind it has been deployed by repressive leaders around the world.
“Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy,” McCain wrote.
The Flake speech and the McCain op-ed came as two Reuters journalists have been arrested in Myanmar in what appears to be retaliation for their reporting on the horrific situation facing the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Flake alluded to that situation during his floor remarks.
“A state official in Myanmar recently said, ‘There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,’” the senator said.
The McCain piece focused on the “fake news” effect around the world, and what Congress needs to do if the Trump administration will not.
“We cannot afford to abdicate America’s long-standing role as the defender of human rights and democratic principles throughout the world,” he wrote. “Without strong leadership in the White House, Congress must commit to protecting independent journalism, preserving an open and free media environment, and defending the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
Among the statements from the Trump administration that Flake called a “falsehood” is the president’s characterization of the reported Russian meddling in the 2016 election as a “hoax.”
“Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks,” Flake said. “What might seem like a casual and routine untruth — so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington — is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.”
Nothing to lose
Flake, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, has promised to speak out against the Trump administration when necessary, and his remarks Wednesday were timed to line up with the expected date of Trump’s “Most Dishonest and Corrupt Media Awards,” although White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested the previous day that the event might not go forward Wednesday.
The junior senator from Arizona ended his prebuttal from the floor with a call for his colleagues to stand up and defend the truth.
“We are a mature democracy. It is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring — or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth,” Flake said. “For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.”
Sanders responded to Flake’s speech by panning his support for improving the U.S. relationship with Cuba.
She said that during a recent trip to the island nation, Flake served as a “mouthpiece” for an “actually oppressive regime.”