(By Jay Ambrose, Centennial Fellow)
President Donald Trump recently said news media employing “fake news” were the “enemy of the people,” and some critics in the news media replied that his saying so showed he himself was that enemy. They were themselves hardly waving white flags, and so where does one begin to build a defense?
Trump has been Trump in this debate. In his usual flamboyant, loosely reasoned style, he angrily mangled a message about news outlets unfairly having at him, as has in fact absolutely happened. One would think that, in his tweets, his ranting in a press conference, a speech at a gathering of conservatives and some interviews, he had gone way, way too far. That was before we got the exaggerated response, which made one wonder whether he had gone far enough.
Look here, we were told by news commentators speaking from such platforms as the intellectually revered Atlantic magazine, Trump’s verbal hits on the press make him as threatening as the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who actually shut down newspapers and radio and TV stations. Some compared Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has reportedly had journalists murdered. You think these berserkers were done? They weren’t. Other Trump lookalikes in their vision were Stalin, Lenin and Mussolini.
Yes, it’s true that Trump made it sound that the democratically vital news media were out to get us. He said in the press conference that journalists were dishonest, toadies of special interests and purveyors of fake news. This is rhetorical overkill, but is it equivalent to human killing? Is snarling at particular news entities the same as closing them down?
Trump has been guilty of rhetorical malfeasance before and will be again; he is someone whose penchant for disconnected, emotional ramblings is well-established. What it takes to earn comparisons to the likes of Stalin, however, are horrifying deeds, and that is not what we are seeing in a Muslim ban that is not a Muslim ban, mass deportations that are primarily criminal deportations or criticisms of courts that earned them, if not in the language.
Those who associate Trump with the worst humanity has to offer on the basis of his hapless phrases are clearly ideological extremists whose own egregious excesses should make one shudder. If they were reasonably, fairly, open-mindedly concerned about a president threatening the free press, wouldn’t they have swung their mighty pens instead in the direction of President Barack Obama?
He, too, employed anti-media rhetoric, at least in bashing Fox News, no worse than its competitors. What is more worrisome is how the administration spied on a Fox reporter as well as on a bureau of the Associated Press and threatened reporters with jail if they did not reveal sources. An Obama aide actually bragged about misleading gullible White House reporters about the realities behind the hugely important Iran nuclear deal. The administration likewise set a record by turning over nothing or at least less than requested in 77 percent of cases under the Freedom of Information Act.
Obama’s attachment to free speech was slim to the point that he wanted to infringe on it with campaign laws. He barked during a State of the Union speech at Supreme Court justices who were seated in front of him, happened to respect the First Amendment, had made a decision he was steaming about and knew some of what he was saying was hokum. Obama’s autocratic impulses were well illustrated by any number of executive actions either struck down by the Supreme Court or now in federal court awaiting a legal noose for obvious transgressions.
These particular commentators are of the same ilk as many others who have refused to let up on endless bashing of Trump in his early days as president, as in fraudulent claims of his being anti-Semitic or anti-gay. And hanging out next to them are all those hard news reporters whose abandonment of objectivity is forever cheating the need for an accurately informed public.
If you’ve been involved in this craft for a half century or more as I have, you know how the idea of not taking sides in reporting has been taking a beating for years now. The objectivity ideal was not really possible to achieve, some said. The focus, they insisted, should be truth, meaning in effect resort to bias almost always of the liberal persuasion that has a hold on something like 80 to 90 percent of journalists.
The consequence is found in double standards of what does and does not get covered, what is and is not emphasized, who does and does not get investigated and personal judgments about the right and wrong of complicated questions. There used to be all kinds of rules to keep editorializing out of hard news copy, and here is a perfect illustration of what one was professionally required to avoid: almost any current front-page New York Times story having to do with Trump.
Years ago, at a conference of opinion writers in Nashville, I heard a New York Times editorialist bemoan the competition from those whose job was supposedly writing straight news. Those fouls were nothing compared to what we are seeing now, causing the current public editor concerns about a betrayal of important values. This paper’s bias is such that it examines context and actual words so insufficiently as to keep up the falsity that Trump once called for Russia to hack Clinton emails. He never did. Far worse than that, the Times is now caught up in the idea that Trump’s campaign may have colluded with the Russians in trying to sway the presidential election outcome. The evidential basis, at least at this point, is about the same that we had in the Obama birther story.
It’s not just the Times gone amiss, of course, but news outlets all over the map. Most stories most of the time are reputable enough, and there are still journalists who do cling to the old standards. At the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper’s editor recently met with a number of reporters believing Trump was being let off too easily. He is reported to have said the paper was sticking to sound rules of the game and that those who wanted to go further should consider working for other newspapers.
I myself have great respect for the great majority of journalists I have known. They do not intentionally mislead people, they stay away from conflicts of interest, they do not make stuff up, they aim to enhance democracy. I also think it important to remember that, even though the word “media” is now often used as a singular, it is in fact plural, and not all media are made the same. At the same time, however, I am not backing down from my thesis of a general standards shift on objectivity that has had frightening consequences, as demonstrated in studies showing that, too often, Americans get cheated out of a well-rounded picture.
Put it all together, and you find a public in which just 32 percent trust news media a lot or even just a little, according to a Gallup poll. It’s a judgment that threatens journalism’s ability to fulfill its honorable, Madisonian role.
There is something else going on that is relevant to all of this, and that’s the leftist war on free speech. University campuses are denying conservatives a right to speak. Members of Congress have called for using anti-gangster laws to investigate and prosecute executives in private firms who do not concur on sacrosanct global warming theses. The left believes in strict limitations on corporations speaking out in political contests. Hillary Clinton and 50 Democratic senators have called for rewriting the First Amendment to give politicians more power over speech, and you can be sure that power, if it were ever to come, would be used to do more than curb campaign spending that has relatively little effect after a certain threshold anyway.
It is interesting that so many media commentators have joined in this fight, often saying that spending money for TV commercials is not speech. Someone needs to explain that curtailing the means of speech is in fact the curtailing of speech itself, something the commentators will learn if the principles they promote should someday be extended to the press and advertising is curtailed. What they need to understand is that the critical thing for American democracy is not just freedom of the press but freedom of speech generally, openness generally.
None of this means Trump was anywhere close to right in all he said or the way he said it, but it does not matter that he also skipped the White House Correspondents dinner or that there was a meeting of White House officials with selected journalists. It does matter that the press cannot see through its bias.