Author: Senator Jeff Flake- Republican from Arizona- January 17, 2018 -Speech from the US Senate Floor.

Text has been edited

' In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America. Without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the President of the United States called the free press in 2017. Of course, the President has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. 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.

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. 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. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

So powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the President’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful — in fact, we question the powerful most ardently — to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no President will ever have dominion over objective reality. No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. An American President who cannot take criticism — who must constantly deflect and distort and distract, who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism. Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.

Let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Every word that a President utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

The question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy. It is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring — or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.


Today the United States has a President who elicits applause when he calls reporters “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” They are “scum,” he says, “the lowest form of life” and “enemies.” When Mr. Trump is confronted with contradictory evidence, his response isn’t to admit error, or even to cease repeating the claims. He attacks the critics, none more vociferously than the news media.

News reporters are doing their jobs. They report embarrassing facts about Trump’s behavior or his predilection for repeating statements that are – and you can choose your own word here – inaccurate, falsehoods, exaggerations, or lies.

The news media seem to be easy prey for Trump’s persistent battering. But if that situation is sustained, the news media’s ability to hold the President to account for misstatements or misbehavior will have limited, if any, impact. And reversing this situation will be difficult in large part because of the internet’s ability to provide echo chambers where individuals of all political stripes can find support for their beliefs. No longer is the news media able to fill its pre-internet role as the gatekeeper of reliable information, separating facts from falsehood.

At this point in the nation’s history, having a President with little regard for facts that challenge his beliefs isn’t a trivial matter. American democracy presupposes a well-informed citizenry – that is, it depends upon voters making decisions using factual information.

Today it is important that information be checked and rechecked, and that objectivity and fairness  be used in judging the newsworthiness of information. Conflict between the press and the president is less worrisome than the prospect of being led by an administration for which facts and truths are fungible or irrelevant. Lincoln once said that while the people can be fooled some of the time, they will not be fooled all of the time. Most people know that real knowledge is rooted in facts, and that getting these facts makes them smarter. People will search for, find, and support those sources that consistently strive to deliver facts. Those sources are called journalists.

Add new comment