The government and the press have always had a love-hate relationship; they are natural enemies while relying on each other to function – what girls might call the archetypal “frenemies,” if you will excuse the term. This symbiotic link has always existed on a knife-edge; there is a reason that the Founding Fathers felt the need to enshrine the right to press freedom in the First Amendment of the Constitution. But nobody who keeps track of the news these days could deny that the relationship between the government and the media has become toxic.
While President Trump has undeniably heightened antagonism between government and the media, is this really new, or is it part of a pattern that has been a long time in the making? Is the open hostility between Trump and certain media outlets productive in the goal for a balanced press, or is it in fact strengthening the existing dysfunctional “news as entertainment” industry, while also contributing to a potentially dangerous precedent that could be used to suppress press freedom in years to come?
The Enemy of the People?
President Trump has called the U.S. media the “enemy of the people” on various occasions and recently the issue resurfaced with a vengeance due to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’ refusal to denounce the President’s statements in a confrontation with CNN’s Jim Acosta.
While Sanders may not have been willing to contradict the President, his daughter Ivanka made headlines when she came out in an interview with Axiom to say that although she has been the target of inaccurate reports, she doesn’t agree that the media is the enemy of the people.
Is the media truly the peoples’ enemy? Perhaps much of it is, but the problem goes much deeper than Trump has delved.
The Cornerstone of Democracy?
One person who saw the decline of the U.S. media before most people realized what was going on is Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who released the book Rich Media, Poor Democracy in the year 2000. Legacy news personalities like Acosta may be up in arms about Trump’s supposed threat to press freedom, however, these same people have built their careers on a distinct lack of media diversity. McChesney gave a 2003 interview in which he claimed that the Constitutional right to press freedom has been hijacked by massive media corporations, and no longer serves the public:
Often times people say ‘well what about the First Amendment, isn’t that our safeguard against tyranny, isn’t that the thing that keeps our press free?’ And what’s really happened is that the First Amendment has changed dramatically from when it was written to how it’s interpreted today…
It was meant originally as a social right. We have a right to a free press, we have a right to free speech, not just for ourselves but for the entire society. So I have the right to a free press not so that I can make a newspaper but also I can consume a vibrant free press and that’s the principle involved…
In the new [since the 1920s] corporate regime, though, the courts have unambiguously said that the right to a free press goes to the shareholders, to the corporate investors, it doesn’t go to the editor, it doesn’t go to the reporter – they only have their First Amendment rights to the extent the investors grant them to them.
According to the professor, there no longer exists a right to consume a quality, free press, but only the right to produce content as you like – a privilege in the hands of an increasingly tiny minority of corporate cronies, as media ownership continues to become more and more concentrated.
But what about the internet, hasn’t that opened up press freedom to the public? The internet has indeed been a democratizing force, however, it is still a medium in its infancy and that freedom is already being reined in by the “mommy and daddy” corporations who know best. Online communication is perhaps held in even fewer hands than the traditional media, and those hands are now clenching into fists in the attempt to crush alternative opinions, as illustrated by the recent purge of InfoWars host Alex Jones from several social media sites in a clearly coordinated attempt to wipe him into the internet’s memory hole.
The corporations that now own our news media, that increasingly bought them into their massive empires, realize that giving journalists the autonomy to make professional decisions is bad business. It’s much better business to hold your news division to a fierce accounting, to make it generate the same sort of profit as your movie division, as your TV division, as your music division.
And that means basically fewer resources, less investigative work, less controversial work, more puff pieces. More trivia, more entrainment, more celebrity coverage, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten…
And so what we get is a much weaker journalism, a journalism that tends toward covering the much easier stories about celebrities and royal families, who’s idea of balanced political reporting is to simply put a mike in front of a Republican and then get a Democratic opinion, but almost never means going out a figuring out who’s telling the truth, actually doing the journalism of investigating the various claims and then telling us what’s actually going on.
Hasn’t coverage of President Trump become like a never-ending celebrity puff piece, where you are expected to either love him or hate him? We are faced with endless talk about the man, with little substance or investigative work delving into the truth behind the gossip. People love to hate their political adversaries, and that has become the new entertainment.
Conservatives – and people of all stripes who value press freedom – didn’t like it when President Obama favored media outlets such as CNN, over ones like Fox News. Although many may find it tempting to revel in this opportunity for revenge as Trump has turned the tables on those complacent outlets, but is this a wise move?
A 2013 Fox News article called “Obama vs. Fox News — behind the White House strategy to delegitimize a news organization” stated:
“Sure, everyone understands how some of Fox’s opinion programming would get under President Obama’s skin, the same way MSNBC from 4pm until closing time is not the favorite stop for Republicans. But it’s not okay — or presidential — to continue smearing an entire network of hard working journalists because you are mad at Sean Hannity.
Simply change some of the names and this line could have been penned by CNN in 2018. One Fox segment from 2013 titled “Bias alert: President Obama’s war on Fox News” discussed the issue, with Ellen Ratner saying:
You don’t go after a news organization. First of all, we have freedom of the press in this country, last time I looked. By going after a news organization, you’re essentially saying that this news organization should be toeing the line.
Obama’s “War on Fox” may have seemed inexcusable, and Trump has upped the ante with a “War on the Media” – what will the next president do, and how will Republicans feel when a future Democrat president has a well-established precedent that can be used to justify the next crackdown on conservative outlets, or any other perspective that is deemed “fake” or illegitimate? As said by clergyman Douglas Horton, “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.”
President Trump, like many on the right of politics, may have identified genuine flaws in the current U.S. media, but only on a superficial level that does not address the root problem. Rather, these “wars” between politicians and the press benefit both combatants, providing hours and hours of material with which to distract the public from the deeper root problems that both are causing in society.
Rather than complaining about symptoms and engaging in a downward spiral of “tit-for-tat” attacks, it would be nobler to start addressing the long-term root causes of today’s media problems.